Sampson Pringle stood on the roof of his stalled truck on an unfamiliar road in the pouring rain. With water rising around him, he told his fiancee not to worry because he saw help coming.
Two days later, after the historic flood waters started to recede, his body had washed up on someone’s lawn, hundreds of feet away from his truck.
Pringle was one of 10 people who drowned in the flash floods in the Columbia area from Oct. 3-5. Their common denominator: All were in their cars, caught off guard by rising water in places they likely didn’t expect to flood. Some were out trying to help others.
“Some were going to work. Some were going to someone else’s aid. Some people were just caught by surprise. Unfortunately, they all ended up the same place,” said Richland County Coroner Gary Watts, who investigated nine of the drownings. “Just stay off the roads when it might be flooding. Water is much more powerful than you might think.”
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The victims drowned on little-known waterways like Crane Creek or 25-Mile Creek. A few died on waterways so small they have no name. Their bodies weren’t found for hours or sometimes days in the chaos happening across Columbia, where an inch of rain fell every 30 minutes for hours. Several smaller earthen dams broke, but engineers still haven’t been able to piece together which ones failed first and started the chain reaction.
Pringle, a sweet, devoted family man who planned to go back to school and hoped to open a restaurant, was on unfamiliar Decker Boulevard just before the sun came up on Sunday, Oct. 4. He was driving home from the bar where he worked as a DJ, according to his fiancee, Aneesah Smith.
Pringle called Smith.
“He was his normal self. He doesn’t like to worry anyone,” she said. “He didn’t seem like he was in a panic.”
He said the truck was stuck, but he saw rescuers. Smith doesn’t know what he meant. Smith said he ended the call saying, “I love you. I’ll see you later.”
Alexandria Holmes had just left the hospital where she went to have stomach pains checked out when she drove down unfamiliar Sunset Drive instead of her typical route home, said her father, Bill Holmes. Many roads were impassable or closed as the flooding spread across Columbia that day.
Holmes’ car stalled at a culvert where an unnamed creek goes under a road without a bridge. Her grandmother, Peggy Souder, said the 24-year-old University of South Carolina graduate frantically called her boyfriend on her cellphone. When he didn’t answer, she called her roommate.
“The battery went dead, and she couldn’t get the windows to open. She started freaking out,” Souder said, recalling the conversation relayed to Holmes’ family by the roommate. “The phone went dead and that was it.”
Holmes’ body was found still inside her car when the water receded.
“I have five daughters, and this girl was really special. She could be president instead of Hillary Clinton. She lit up every room she went in,” her father said.
Robert Vance and Ricky McDonald were among five contract workers sent by R.J. Corman Railroad Group to check on and repair tracks damaged or ruined in the floods. They were returning from work when their vehicle got into trouble; the road and bridge ahead of them had been washed out.
“They weren’t familiar with the road, and it was real dark,” said Debbie Smith, McDonald’s sister.
Three men were able to get out of the truck and swim to safety. Divers found the bodies of McDonald, 53, and Vance, 58, still in the truck.
McDonald had been sick a week earlier and considered not going to South Carolina, his sister said. “But he said ‘those people need me so I’m going to go,’ ” she recalled. McDonald was from Chesapeake, Ohio. Vance was from Lexington, Ky.
Richard Milroy, 82, was driving to the First Baptist Church in Columbia like he did nearly every Sunday to sing in the choir when he was caught in rising water in his neighborhood. He had no idea that church services had been cancelled.
“When he gets up, he gets ready for church and goes,” said his son, Greg Milroy, of Gastonia, N.C.
Richard Milroy took an alternate street out of the neighborhood, passing by Transportation Department workers who were putting up barricades. They tried to flag him down, but Milroy didn’t see them amid the heavy downpour.
The coroner said first responders did a heroic job. While 12 people drowned and seven others died in weather-related traffic wrecks, no one died in a home in South Carolina. The state counted almost 1,500 rescue missions. Local firefighters likely rescued hundreds more by boats, ropes and helicopters.
But they couldn’t get to everyone. Rescuers told Watts of arriving at sites where someone desperately called for help and seeing nothing but rushing water, or seeing seven or eight cars in deep, roaring creeks with no idea which ones might be occupied and which ones were empty.
“I’ll don’t think any of us will ever doubt the power of water again,” Watts said.