Dispatch supervisor Matthew Crook, 32, has a decade of experience in getting help to the right place at the right time. Before reporting to work Oct. 4 at Columbia’s 911 center, he cleaned out the gutters at his home and had flashlights ready for his wife and three children.
“I did not think it would be as bad as it was,” Crook said.
But a call from residents of Willow Creek Apartments in the St. Andrews area in the middle of his night shift crystallized the danger residents were facing as historic rain pounded metropolitan Columbia.
“People were on the second floor, and water was coming in their doors,” Crook recalled. “That really put it in my mind that this really was devastating – a real flood.”
The 911 center employees braced themselves as midnight turned into the darkest part of night. Rain that ranged from 9 to nearly 16 inches would swamp portions of Richland County between midnight and noon that Sunday. Water was rushing into people’s cars, homes and businesses.
And they called 911.
Dispatchers manned every desk the 911 center had. Fire officials worked alongside, sending rescuers as quickly as they could.
But whatever everyone did, it never could have been enough, those involved agree. There never would have been enough lines to take the nearly 5,000 calls in the first 12 hours of the record-setting rain or enough dispatchers to answer them. Everything seemingly happened at once.
Deputy fire chief Harry Tinsley coordinated many of the challenges his department faced that night after dispatchers took the calls.
“The lesson learned here is that this (storm) taxed the system beyond anyone’s imagination,” Tinsley said.
Noise, tension seize operators
Crook is used to working busy weekend night shifts in Columbia’s 3,100-square-foot 911 call center, located in the Columbia Fire Department headquarters. The room gets noisy as emergencies ebb and flow.
This emergency was different. The decibel level in the center was unending and loud for hours. The stress never seemed to let up.
Initially, the rain didn’t appear extraordinary.
But around 3:30 in the morning it seemed the heavens had opened. About 125 dispatch computer screens at 23 work stations lit up with voices of desperation.
“Everyone who called us ... was in a panic,” recalled Natalie Simons, a veteran dispatch supervisor.
Columbia fire captain Chris Kip is a 19-year veteran who is in the 911 center about 10 times a month to help manage more typical emergencies.
“The entire room was inundated, with the phones ringing, people talking,” he said. “It was a cacophony. But also, it was the foreboding of what was to come. It was tense. ...
“I have never experienced the suddenness of how we were overrun,” he said. “Sunday by 4 o’clock, our resources were absolutely overwhelmed.”
The 911 call takers dispatched the rescuers to people caught by the rising waters and who were downstream of dams that were being topped. The operators also contacted power companies about outages, handled the inevitable security alarms and juggled a range of other urgent needs.
The calls, mostly for water rescues, came primarily from Forest Acres and surrounding areas, where there were 240 calls in the 12 hours between midnight, when the storm hit, and noon, said 911 center director Kimberly Gathers. Downtown Columbia had 181; Lower Richland County had 142; the St. Andrews area had 105 and Northeast Columbia had 60. The rest were from across the community.
Hundreds of local, state and national police and firefighters worked that night, including about 40 Columbia firefighters trained in swift-water rescue who were positioned in advance in low-lying areas. Firefighters rescued about 65 people within a couple hours just along Timberlane Drive, off South Beltline Boulevard, most from apartments, Tinsley said.
By the time the flood receded, nine people in Richland County had drowned in their cars.
During his 16 hours with the dispatch center that Sunday, Kip remembers talking to a firefighter who watched helplessly as a woman climbed onto the roof of her car that had washed away off Two Notch Road. “They couldn’t get to her. The water was rushing too strongly. He wanted a boat, but all our boats were on other calls.”
A pregnant woman was on the top of a car in Blythewood. An elderly couple was trapped in their attic. At one point, five firefighters involved in water rescues were swept away. All managed to be rescued.
“I realized that this isn’t a disaster,” Kip said. “It was 11 disasters ... and that’s just the number that came to my head.”
The operators scrambled to stay calm, to sort out the callers most in danger and try to follow up on the rest.
“Dispatchers would come to me – sometimes with tears in their eyes – asking me, ‘How do I help these people?’” Kip said.
Often, he had no one left to send.
Many scared callers found own ways out
The State newspaper talked to more than a dozen residents whose homes were flooded and said they had trouble getting through to dispatchers, especially during the immediate pre-dawn hours.
Those who called before 3 or 3:30 appear to have gotten through more easily.
Homeowner Karen Whalen tried to call between 6:45 a.m. and 7:30 a.m. “It just rang and rang and rang,” said the Lake Katherine area resident. Her eldest son offered to borrow a friend’s Hummer to come get her and her husband, Jeff, from their Burwell Lane home in one of the hardest-hit neighborhoods.
“‘Honey, a Hummer isn’t going to work,’” she remembers telling him. “‘If you have a helicopter, bring it on.’” Eventually, a Good Samaritan in a boat answered her ear-piercing finger whistles. She said the roar of rushing water was what frightened her most.
Kelly Fenzel, who lives on Timberlane Drive, called 911 more than once. “They told me they had a lot of incoming calls for help and someone would be there soon,” she said. “And that was the last I heard from 911. Actually, they showed up the next day. Everybody needed help. I wasn’t the only one. I had faith that they would come.”
But none of the residents interviewed had scathing criticism of how their emergency calls were handled, even though many had to get out on their own with the help of neighbors and strangers.
Stephen Marshall, 52, was one of the worried callers. He telephoned about 5:30 a.m. from the front porch of a next-door neighbor on Burwell Lane. Mostly, Marshall wanted help for those whose homes were most quickly filling with water from Gills Creek. Getting to a dispatcher “seemed like 10 minutes, but it might have been three,” he said.
After the call, Marshall tried to get to another neighbor across the street. Within a few steps, the water went from waist deep to shoulder deep.
The raging, dirty floodwater washed him into a tree six houses down. Marshall managed to grab onto the trunk, shouting into the darkness for help. Somehow, a firefighter, positioned in advance at the foot of Lake Katherine, found him.
John Bradshaw said three of those firefighters knocked on his door about 3 a.m. “They were not going to leave until I physically got out of the house,” Bradshaw said.
“They said, ‘Do you value your property or your life?’”
In the room with dispatchers
Frightened, frayed and frustrated residents like Whalen, Fenzel and Marshall engulfed the 32 “telecommunicators” on duty that long night, Gathers, the center’s director, said, using the term dispatchers prefer. Another 59 dispatchers were on standby and arrived as shifts changed.
Operators sat for hours in their chairs, taking calls, distinguishing between the 911 calls, which has a different ring tone than the calls involving lesser-emergencies that come in on the 252-2911 lines.
A 55-inch TV was tuned to the Weather Channel. Another screen showed television stations’ coverage of the flooding.
Dispatchers adjusted their motorized desktops so they could stand and take calls as the hours took their physical and emotional toll. The usual 12-hour shift turned into 15 hours, Gathers said.
As the shift wore on, some dispatchers took short power naps in a firefighters’ break room so they could return to their consoles. Some didn’t leave their work stations for hours.
Brian McManus, a part-time dispatcher who is a retired firefighter, was in his seat about 18 hours, Gathers said.
“We almost couldn’t get him to leave the work station to take a break,” she said.
The volume of calls began to erupt about 4 a.m., according to records provided to The State by Gathers.
The figures show the calls shot up from 297 between 3 and 4 o’clock to 513, 619, 636 in each of the ensuing three hours.
After sunrise, hourly calls began to slacken slowly to 519, 456, 445 and 403 by noon that Sunday.
“We thought we were out of the worst of it,” Simons, who has been in the dispatching business eight years, said of the hours before 3:30 a.m. “But when the storm actually hit, that’s when the adrenaline started,” she said in a measured, controlled voice that dispatchers employ.
When he got home to his wife and children, Kip, the fire captain, tried to unwind. “The image I had in my head was a thousand springs coiled,” he said.
“It was the greatest stress of my life,” he said more than a month afterward. “All of us are still recovering. It takes a long time to unpack our stress.”
Crook, the dispatch supervisor, is recovering, too.
“It was an event we didn’t expect to see,” he said. “And we hope we won’t have another night like that.”
Staff writer Sarah Ellis contributed. Reach LeBlanc at (803) 771-8664.
Calls for help
Between midnight on Sunday, Oct. 4 and noon that day, dispatchers handled nearly 5,000 calls. Here’s an hour-by-hour breakdown, which includes calls to the 252-2911 phone line.
135 – Midnight to 1 a.m.
140 – 1 a.m. to 2 a.m.
201 – 2 a.m. to 3 a.m
297 – 3 a.m. to 4 a.m.
513 – 4 a.m. to 5 a.m.
619 – 5 a.m. to 6 a.m.
636 – 6 a.m. to 7 a.m.
608 – 7 a.m. to 8 a.m.
519 – 8 a.m. to 9 a.m.
456 – 9 a.m. to 10 a.m.
445 – 10 a.m. to 11 a.m.
403 – 11 a.m. to noon
TOTAL CALLS: 4,972 during the first 12 hours of the historic flood.
SOURCE: Columbia-Richland County 911 center