A year after 30 hours of nonstop rescues, trooper recalls the night of the North Fork River flood
On that rainy Saturday, April 29, 2017, Missouri State Highway Patrol troopers John Roberts and Jason Philpott began their shift at 6 a.m. by preparing for swift-water rescues in a flood they didn’t really expect to come.
“Most of the time when a possible flood is predicted, we prepare and get the boats and equipment ready, and then, nine times out of 10, ... we don’t see it,” Roberts told the Times Monday, recalling that day a year ago when he and other first responders did see a flood: a raging torrent of water and debris that washed away cars, homes and even bridges.
And Roberts and Philpott and other MSHP troopers who serve in MSHP’s water division, were in the middle of it.
“About noon, we started jumping pretty hard – from Willow Springs to West Plains to Vanzant – we were all over the place,” he said. “When I say ‘rescue,’ it was anything from houses being flooded to vehicles being swept off the roads to trailer parks needing to be evacuated. I’m not saying we rescued all those people. Sometimes they had gotten out before we got there. But we still had to get to those locations.”
In that one night, MSHP officers would respond to 80 calls for swift-water rescues in Troop G, which includes all of Ozark County as well as all or part of Carter, Douglas, Howell, Oregon, Reynolds, Shannon, Texas and Wright counties.
Roberts’ and Philpott’s first swift-water rescue came around 2 p.m., when they were called to the James Bridge area of PP Highway to help a man and woman who were in the water, clinging to trees.
“Just past James Bridge, there’s a little-bitty bridge you don’t even notice as you drive over it. Their vehicle had been swept off the county road there,” he said. “We waded out there and physically rescued them.”
After that, “things got so hectic,” he said. “We rescued people and turned around and left. We didn’t get names or anything because we had 10 other calls waiting.”
Right about dark, they were dispatched to West Plains to help evacuate a trailer park by the railroad tracks that had been inundated by floodwater. As they headed east, they drove around the barricades blocking traffic on the CC Highway bridge over the North Fork at Hammond Mill campground. “As we crossed it, the bridge was buckling,” Roberts said. “We got to West Plains and were trying to unload the boat and our dispatcher notified us that the Hammond bridge was gone. It went down 20 minutes after we drove over it.”
That was about the time that the West Plains Fire Department, in trying to rescue flood victims, had lost two boats that sank.
“We went through water multiple times that night when water was coming in the doors of the truck. Everywhere was flooded,” Robert said.
From West Plains, they drove west on Highway 14 to Twin Bridges, where some people were stranded in their homes on Spring Creek. It became almost a relief to be sent somewhere and find people there, in need of help – because when the opposite happened, they assumed the people needing help had drowned.
“We went to calls all night long when we rolled up to wherever we’d been told people had been washed off of low-water slabs and were clinging to vehicles, and we’d get there and there was no vehicle and no people were in sight. Nobody could tell us where the call came from. We had so many calls like that – where we had to leave and go to the next call, but the whole time we were thinking the worst, that we had fatality after fatality,” he said.
He and his fellow officers were amazed, when it was all over, to learn that Troop G was the only MSHP troop in Missouri that sustained flooding but had no fatalities.
Between 9 and 10 p.m., another call came in from the James Lane area next to James Bridge, which was also washed away. Peggy Donahue and her daughter and son-in-law Autumn and Joshua Shirley, were on the roof of a house that was surrounded by water. (See their story in last week’s Times.) Getting there with roads flooded and bridges down was a problem – but nothing compared to the challenge they faced when they arrived at James Lane. “We had to physically put the boat in the water and navigate through the timber and all the other stuff to get to the Donahue house. We studied the river and studied it some more. Trees were coming down that sounded like 50-cal guns going off on the bluffs. We were very careful. We did what we consider an assessment. There were a lot of houses. A lot of obstacles. And there were power lines down in the water. It was dark, and you really couldn’t see them much. If you hang a prop on one of those lines, you’re probably going to bury everyone in the boat. We were out there to save lives, but we had to also be cautious,” said Roberts, 34, who’s married and had a 4-year-old son at the time (he now has a 7-month old daughter as well). Jason Philpott and his wife have four children.
They were joined at the scene by Missouri Department of Conservation agents Mark Henry and Gerald Smith, as well as James Lane-area residents Dan Israel and Shawn Taylor and his son, Matthew.
We kind of drew straws to decide who was going. And me, being who I am, I said I was going, and I was driving the boat,” Roberts said. Gerald Smith went with him.
Israel helped them figure out the route the boat would have to follow through the trees to reach the house. “And I was familiar with it because I’d been through that area on the river 50 million times,” Roberts said.
“We knew a tree could come down on us anytime. We’re dodging all that stuff. And as far as our lights would reach, you had about two seconds to turn or you would hit the thing coming at you. We’re looking through the fog and the rain, and we can barely see the rooftop. They had some kind of little light they were flashing at us. It looked like there were a mile away, but really it was about 100 yards from the residence to dry ground,” he said.
In text messages relayed by Dan Israel, they communicated with the rooftop victims, who said they believed the water was continuing to rise. But the MSHP troopers had stuck a stick in the muddy bottom of the floodwater and watched it for several minutes. The water level didn’t change. “We knew we were safe as far as it rising – at least unless we had another torrential downpour,” Roberts said. “But the current was so strong, the boat motor was having to be at three-fourths throttle just to stay even with it. Not being able to see what was out there in the dark and the fog and rain, we went back to the Israels’ house to wait for daylight. But we could still see them out there, and we stayed in touch with them the best we could.”
When the first glimmer of daylight came, they were back in the boat, maneuvering through the trees. The MSHP staff supporting the rescuers by radio “knew this was a very, very high-risk rescue, and they wanted everyone to be prepared that someone could get hurt or killed,” especially these guys who were sleep deprived and had had no nutrition. The only food they’d eaten since 6 a.m. was six “Cuties,” small tangerine-like oranges that Philpott had brought along.
“But it didn’t matter to me if they told me not to do it. I wasn’t leaving until we got those people off that roof,” Roberts said.
Threading their way through the current among the trees and debris, they finally came alongside the house. They were “about a foot or two below the gutters,” Roberts said. “At that point, the only thing that saved their structure was two trees holding back a bunch of other debris. We knew, if another tree or two goes, that whole structure is going to go. That’s the chance we took,” he said.
They knew they couldn’t take all three victims in the boat at once. So Peggy Donahue went first, slowly lowering herself down using an extension cord they had tied to the rooftop TV antenna. She followed Roberts’ precise instructions about how to handle herself in the boat. Then they carefully made their way back through the raging current and deposited her on dry land before returning for Autumn and Joshua.
When all three people were safe, “there were high-fives and hugs. It was a very exciting moment for everyone. The relief level was intense,” Roberts said. “We’re talking to Willow Springs, and they’re trying to send ambulances to treat them for hypothermia, but by then the bridges had fallen, and they couldn’t get there.”
It took the team about an hour to get the boats loaded up. “But we weren’t done,” he said. “A call had come in from Blue Ribbon Landing, a little subdivision above Blair Bridge, about a man who was floating down the river in the attic of his house. If the house got to Blair Bridge, it would be sucked under, and that would be the end of him. He was calling out from the vent hole of his attic,” Robert said.
He and Philpott raced to Blair Bridge, but they found that they couldn’t put their boat in the water from the west side of the river. “So another swift-water rescue team came in from the east side, and they put a boat in,” said Roberts, who watched with Philpott and other rescuers as the scene unfolded. “It ended up, the only thing that saved him was that, a little before the bridge, the house got caught on a tree. They went up there in their boat and yanked him out of the vent hole in the attic.”
The man was saved, and Roberts and Jason were told to go home. “We were right at 27 hours on duty at that point,” Roberts said. But with all the flooded roads and washed-away bridges, to get home, the pair had to travel north on H Highway and Highway 181 almost to U.S. 60 at Cabool and then head west on Highway 76 to Ava, where Philpott lives. Then Roberts headed home to Gainesville, calling his wife on the way.
When he got home, “it was right at 30 hours,” he said. He had asked his wife to fix him some food. When he got there, he ate a bowl of soup, rested a bit, and then he and Philpott were “right back at it,” he said.
A year later, he said he doesn’t mentally relive the rescues he and the rest of the team made that long night. “It’s not the rescues you make. It’s the ones you can’t save that haunt you. Dawt Mill dam and Chloe, that’s what goes through my head every day,” he said, referring to the 12-year-old Springfield girl whose body he pulled from where it had become entangled underwater in rebar extending from a break in the old dam that crossed the river there about two years ago.
Well, he admits, sometimes he does think about that 30-hour, six-orange night. “We’ll be patrolling the river in the jetboat, me and Jason [Philpott], and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen him looking up at something along the river and shaking his head, and he’ll say, ‘You know, that water level was that high. How crazy is that?’” he said. “It’s one of these deals. Someday I’ll be able to tell my kids the water was this high – 40 feet – and I was out rescueing people. And they’ll say, ‘Dad, you’re getting Alzheimer’s or something.’”
And finally, he laughs.