Don't drive into deep water
Custer County commissio-ners this week were begging people not to drive around “Road Closed” signs and to report any roads or bridges they find washed out and needing to be closed.
“Respect the signs,” said Commission Chairman Lyle Miller. “We don’t put ’em out for the fun of it.”
“If signage is up and it says Road Closed, for Pete’s sake heed the warning,” added Commissioner Kurt Hamburger. “It doesn’t take but a few minutes (to take a different route).”
Hamburger said potential flood conditions are much worse now than they were in 2015 when western Oklahoma’s big four-year drought was broken with heavy rains that fell on May 25.
Then, he said, the big rains came in late spring and early summer when there was lots of vegetation to help soak them up.
Now at the end of summer and with winter soon to arrive, he said much of the ground is bare so the water is moving more, taking with it lots of silt and debris. “If you see a sign, do what it says,” he said.
Commissioner Wade Anders, like Miller and Hamburger speaking at Monday’s weekly commission meeting, said he’d seen people driving around signs that morning.
Anders said he’d seen one lady driving through high water, possibly because she was late to work.
“People need to plan ahead if they think they’re not going to make it in the normal time,” he said.
“If anyone knows of a problem area, give us a call or call 911 and let the sheriff know,” said Hamburger.
Mike Galloway, the county’s emergency management director, said if dams on retention ponds are overflowing, they’ll take out county roads too. “Please report any damage to the commissioners,” he said.
This week’s heavy rains, coinciding as they did with Clinton Police Chief David Crabtree’s retirement announcement, reminded of a situation that occurred in 1992 and was one of the highlights of his law enforcement career. On March 17 that year, a sudden cloudburst dumped 4.1 inches of rain on Clinton in less than an hour, flooding many locales including a low spot on U.S. Highway 183 west of the Bar-S Foods plant.
Less than a block west of that spot, at S. Fifth Street and Locust Avenue, a car carrying three teenage girls stalled in high water. There were also three other people in the car, including a baby, and they got out safely. But the teens – ages 14, 15 and 16 – got out on the opposite side of the car where the water was stronger, and they were swept away.
They were taken down Locust past Fourth Street (which doubles as U.S. 183), past Third Street and into a drainage ditch which ran through the Bar-S parking lot.
In the drainage ditch one of the girls managed to grab hold of a footbridge crossing it and hang on until she could be rescued.
The other two, though, were carried beneath two footbridges, banged against huge boulders that had been placed in the ditch as riprap where it widened and deepened, carried under a then-new vehicle bridge built to accommodate trucks going into Bar-S, and finally swept under a railroad bridge.
At that point the ditch – which eventually emptied into the Washita River –narrowed back down and one of the girls was able to grab a post and hang on till Crabtree and other officers could rescue her.
Besides the future police chief, other officers on the scene were Policeman Bill Miller and Deputy Sheriff Kevin Evans. The three of them ran down the banks of the ditch shining their flashlights into the water, and finally heard the girls yelling southeast of the railroad bridge.
One was near the edge of the water, but the other was out in the middle clinging to a low-hanging tree limb. Only their heads were above water.
The one closest to the bank was rescued first. Miller, the tallest of the three officers, waded in after her. A citizen – later determined to be Roger Hull – had also arrived. He got in the water too and held to the railroad bridge with one hand and stretched the other out so Miller could grab it for support while taking the girl with his other arm and heading back to the bank.
The last girl was more of a challenge, but by then another policeman – and future chief, Lt. Ken Thiessen – had arrived with a rope. Miller tied one end of it around his waist while Crabtree and Evans clung to the other end.
Miller then swam an estimated 30 feet to the girl and managed to untangle one of her feet which was stuck in the tree branches.
“I told her to put her arms around my neck and I would do the rest,” he told this reporter afterwards. But Miller needed help too, and Crabtree and Evans were there to provide it.
Miller said the current was too strong for him to swim against but using the rope, Crabtree and Evans were able to pull him and the girl to the bank.
Crabtree and Miller were both awarded the Police Department’s Life Saving Award and Medal of Honor for their efforts that night.
Other echoes from that evening 26 years ago were still being heard this week. Some of the commissioners’ comments Tuesday sounded almost like what Leon Kinder, then the fire chief, was saying in 1992.
“People driving off into the waters was our main problem,” Kinder was quoted in the Clinton Daily News as stating. “People need to stop and wait until the water goes down, or turn around and go back. Don’t try to drive through it. I feel we were fortunate we didn’t have anybody hurt really bad that night.”
Kinder said the force of the water on S. 13th Street shortly before it connects with S. 10th was so strong it shoved the radiator of a fire truck rescuing a motorist back into the fan.
That truck was being used at the time to rescue a woman from her car. She was pulled out the driver’s window. Kinder said after his men got her out, water was going over the hood of her car.
At that same location, the then-fire chief said he watched as a man in a half-ton pickup drove into the water from the north. He said the pickup turned sideways near the intersection of 13th and Shelley and floated on down to 10th where it stalled out.
Like the commissioners this week, he urged people then to be patient when storms occur.
“Once the rain quit, within 20 minutes the water was all gone,” he said.