Zack Hudson began receiving phone calls from his friends and neighbors around Lake Katherine about 6:30 a.m. on Sunday, Oct. 4., as area floodwaters began to rise. They knew he had a boat.
“There were saying things like, ‘I’ve got children in the house. Can you come get us out?” the 30-year-old said.
But Hudson’s boat was a Scout 22-foot, V-hulled, fiberglass, ocean-capable fishing boat too large and too fragile to navigate the shallow water, swift currents and debris in a flood. “It would have been an insurance claim,” said his friend and co-rescuer, Drew Bozard.
So he found a city of Columbia police officer and asked when the water rescue teams were coming so he could call his panicked friends back and ease their fears.
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“The officer said, ‘Nobody’s coming. There’s no one to come,” Hudson said of overwhelmed local agencies. “I asked if I could put a boat in. He said, ‘I can’t commission you. But if you want to be a hero, this is a good day to start.’ ”
Together, Hudson and Bozard, joined by a second boat with friends Frank Roddey and Ryan Truluck of Hopkins, pulled an estimated 70 people from the waters in and around Lake Katherine in the worst flood in modern South Carolina history.
The most challenging rescue, they said, was retrieving six adults – including my girlfriend, Dana McManus, and me – two children and four dogs from the second story of a house on Downing Street that was flooded to the first floor eave. One of the adults was a 400-pound grandmother who couldn’t walk.
Last Sunday, I wrote about Dana and me escaping from first our home and then our car as the floodwaters rose. We didn’t know our rescuers’ names. But Hudson and Roddey contacted me when they read the story. I met them last Wednesday at Lizard’s Thicket on Beltline Boulevard to thank them and to learn their story. But my main question was: Why would they risk their lives to save others?
“We’re river rats,” Roddey said. “We’re always in a river – hunting, fishing, screwing around. And people needed help.”
“Nervous and confused”
On the morning of the flood, after speaking with the police officer, Hudson, a logistics consultant for trucking company R.L. Solutions, called Bozard, 39, of Forest Acres, his friend and owner of the company. Bozard had a rugged metal, flat-bottomed War Eagle fishing boat.
It took Bozard 20 minutes to drive the mile and a half from his home on Ravenwood Drive to the edge of the flood at Forest Ridge and Quail Lane.
Hudson and Bozard launched the boat about 8:30 a.m. Roddey, an employee of Barron’s Outfitters on Harden Street in Columbia, and Truluck, who works at Westinghouse, launched their boat – a G3 fishing boat they had borrowed from friend Marty Roof – at the same location at about the same time.
The four men began cruising the lake looking for people to save. They found them in all manner of places – first floors and second floors of houses, on roofs and in trees.
They were surprised by the number of people who refused to leave their homes despite the high water.
“Some even asked us if we could come back later and check on them,” Hudson said, shaking his head. “People were just nervous and confused.”
Their boats bumped over bridges, cars, and all manner of debris. They dodged power lines. But the tough, riverine fishing boats took it in stride.
“You couldn’t see the cars,” Hudson said. “You would be riding along and just hit one.”
The boats handled well when going upstream. But they had to, sometimes, drive at high speeds to stay in line while going downstream with the fast current – techniques they had learned as children fishing with their fathers.
“You just have to pay attention to what you’re doing,” Truluck said.
The depth and expanse of the water was enormous. Surprising.
“We couldn’t even see the Lake Katherine dam,” Roddey said. “We drove right over it.”
About 25 to 30 boats were maneuvering around what once was the Lake Katherine neighborhood but now was an all-encompassing flood. “We even saw a pontoon boat,” Truluck said.
Surprisingly, the men said, they never saw any official water rescue teams until about 6 p.m. Hudson said the emergency workers told them they wanted to do more, but “they didn’t have the resources.”
At times, police or firefighters would give them the locations of stranded people who had finally gotten through to a 911 operator.
“By the time we got there, they would be gone,” rescued by someone else, Roddey said. “911 was just overwhelmed.”
Some of the scenes they saw were heartbreaking – particularly in one house later in the day after the water had begun receding. A black Labrador retriever lay drowned in a crate, where a neighbor had put it the night before, not knowing the water would rise so quickly.
The owner had gone to the Clemson football game, and found the dog the next day when she returned to her flooded home.
“The lady took it really rough,” Truluck said.
At one point they rescued two men from a magnolia tree. The two had put in kayaks and were going for a joy ride. It didn’t work out.
“They only went about 100 feet, hit the current and flipped,” Truluck said. “That current was rippin’.”
An extraordinary day
The most challenging rescue, they said, was of my group of refugees huddling on the second story of a house on Downing Street – a house Dana and I swam to after escaping from our swamped car.
Roddey and Truluck pulled up to the roof of the screened-in front porch, and we slid down the roof into the boat, which was level with the eave, sitting in about 10 to 12 feet of water.
After they deposited Dana and me, along with a mother and daughter and four dogs on high ground, we left to find shelter.
Our rescuers remained and were joined by Hudson and Bozard, a police officer and another civilian, and they managed to get the 400-pound woman onto a back board and into a rescue basket, slide her out of the window and lower her into the boat.
Hudson and Bozard were knocked out of commission about 12:30 p.m. when their prop was fouled by debris, but they had rescued 15 to 20 people. Roddey and Truluck pulled out at about 4 p.m. after saving about 45 or 50 people.
On Wednesday, during our conversation at Lizard’s Thicket, the men seemed nonchalant about their bravery. It was another day on the water for them –albeit one extraordinary day.
When the water was highest and the danger was greatest, they and the other civilian water rescuers answered the call.
“It had to be done,” Roddey said.