Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Death on the Mustang

The storm went on for the longest time—a great pouring of rain through the trees outside my window, with a booming and crashing of thunder, and lightning, that went on longer than any storm I’d ever known.

I was comfortable and cozy in my room, reading, yet sometimes the thunder was so loud it vibrated the room and I would look up from my book, heart racing, wondering if the storm was going to tear the house apart.

Finally, the rain let up a little and I heard my father in the kitchen talking on the phone. He hung up and said something to my mother. I heard the word “flooding,” and put down my book. I met my father in the hall. "What's happening?" I asked.

“I just talked to the police chief,” he said. “Buffalo Creek’s flooding and the whole east side of town is cut off. This is a bad one. You want to go with me?”

Of course I did. If Cleburne was flooding, I wanted to see it.

I put on my coat and black cowboy hat, and we drove downtown in the old '64 white Ford Falcon to my father’s newspaper office. I waited in the car while he went inside to get some extra film, then we drove down East Henderson, crossed the railroad tracks, and there it was—a wide, raging river where the creek had been, and so high it was lapping up to the edge of the bridge.

Two fire trucks, a police car, and an ambulance were stationed there, and a large group of men—firemen mostly, but also citizens there to help—were watching as a motorboat moved away through the darkness across the water.

My father asked what was going on. A fireman said they were rescuing people from their rooftops. "We got two boats out there" he said, "but we could use more."

In a few minutes, one of the boats appeared out of the darkness, carrying an entire family. Several men waded out into the water to help them out of the boat. An older Hispanic woman with a dazed look on her face stumbled as she tried to wade through the water. A man caught her and carried her onto dry land.

My father took a few pictures, then we got in the car and went to the courthouse where an evacuation center had been set up in the basement. It was brightly lit and packed with people, noisy with voices and babies crying. As these were people from the east side, it was a mix of poor whites, blacks, and Hispanics.

My father handed me a pen and paper pad and I followed him, writing down names and taking notes as he took pictures and interviewed people. I remember one man sitting on the edge of his cot, smoking distractedly, staring down at the floor, his voice shaky as he described getting his family to safety through the rising water and how they had clung to the rooftop in the rain and lightning.

We left the courthouse. I don’t remember where we were headed next, because we didn’t get there. In front of the post office, the rain picked up and began to pour in great blinding sheets. Through the windshield, we were able to see that the street was starting to flood. My father tried to drive through it, but the engine gave out. We got out of the car and waded through knee-deep water to higher ground.

“We’re gonna’ have to get the other car,” my father said. That meant walking home—not a bad walk in dry weather, but just now it was pouring and the lightning fierce.

So, rather than walking home just then, we headed back to the office to wait for the rain to let up. I was cold and wet, drenched to the bone, and my cowboy hat was soggy and had lost its shape. I never wore it again after that night.

My father made a pot of coffee and brought me a cup. “It’s going to be a long night,” he said. I’d never cared for coffee, but tonight it tasted good.

The rain let up a little, so we started walking. We headed up West Henderson toward home, but on the way my father decided to stop by the police station to get an update on the flood.

The station was packed with men, thick with cigarette smoke, the tile floor wet and muddy with footprints, the police radio crackling. Reporters from Fort Worth had arrived. A man whose face I recognized from WBAP-TV got off the phone and said to the police chief, “I just talked to Harold Taft. He says we’ve seen the worst of it. This son-of-a-bitching storm'll be out of here in thirty minutes.”

I saw coffee and poured myself a cup. Meanwhile, my father was talking to a reporter from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. They were interrupted when the word came over the police radio that there was trouble south of town: Mustang Creek had flooded, trapping people in their cars. It wasn't known if any had drowned, but there were survivors up in the trees, waiting to be rescued. Cleburne didn't have any firemen to spare, but fortunately the Grandview Volunteer Fire Department was able to handle it.

I had just poured another cup of coffee. My father said, “Let’s go.” He invited the Star-Telegram reporter to ride with us.

The three of us walked home, where we piled into the old ’55 blue Cadillac and drove out of town on the main highway heading south.

The rain had slowed to a steady sprinkle now, but there was still some lightning. Whenever it flashed, we could see large areas of farmland covered in water.

“This is a goddamn shame,” the reporter kept saying, shaking his head, “a goddamn shame.”

Halfway between Cleburne and Rio Vista, we turned off the main highway and began traveling down a farm-to-market road. In a few minutes, we came to the flooded place in the road, and parked behind a fire truck and several other vehicles.

It was a quiet scene, and somber. One of the firemen told us that two rescuers—a fireman and his non-fireman friend who had been visiting from Fort Worth—had disappeared while trying to reach the people in the trees. They had been holding on to a long rope, when the powerful rushing water pulled them under. No one knew if the men had managed to swim to the trees.

That had happened before a boat could be brought in. The boat was out there now, we were told.

I stood on the edge of the water, looking out into the darkness. A flash of lightning revealed a vast, terrible abyss of water, with a few treetops sticking out here and there. It was shocking to me that a mere creek could become a lake, and so quickly. There had been no time to warn anyone or block off the road, and it had been so dark and rainy the people had driven blindly into the rising water, not knowing the danger until they were in it.

It was so quiet out there that night—there was only the sound of the truck's idling engine and somewhere out in the black night the drone of the motorboat searching for the people. We all stood staring into the darkness, but could only see as far as the spotlight reached. I remember a fireman’s wife was there, standing beside the truck—an older woman in dress clothes and high heels, her hair bedraggled from the rain and her face tight and grim.

In a little while we heard the motorboat draw nearer, then saw it as it came into the light. It was full of people. It stopped just short of a barbed wire fence. The firemen waded out into the water and began helping the people out of the boat. There were five survivors in all—a man about thirty, an elderly farmer in his work clothes, and a boy about ten, with his mother and father.

The old farmer was smiling, which I thought odd. But, as he got closer, I realized it wasn’t a smile at all—his face was locked in a kind of grimace and his eyes shone with tears.

“I tried to tell my wife,” he said, “I told her to get out of the car, but she wouldn’t. She’s gone, she's gone …”

The younger man was the fireman’s friend who had been visiting from Fort Worth. The Star-Telegram reporter asked him his name, but he was shivering so badly he couldn’t speak. Someone put a blanket around him and led him to the ambulance.

Someone asked the boy when he’d last seen his little sister. He said he saw her behind him while they were swimming for the trees. But when he looked back again she was gone.

The reporter got into the ambulance with the survivors and rode with them to the hospital in Cleburne. We didn't see him again.

My father and I stayed throughout the night. At one point, he told me to go back to the car and get some sleep.

As I lay in the back seat of the old Cadillac, I wondered if I’d be able to sleep. It was so awful, knowing there were dead people floating out there in the darkness, and I kept thinking about the boy looking back and not seeing his sister anymore—so terrible to think about a child being swallowed up by the horrible dark water.

But I did fall asleep—a light, fitful sleep, with visions of rain, sheets of rain, and endless sweeps of water, raging water, and fire truck lights flashing in the night. Sometimes I would wake to the drone of the motorboat when it drew nearer, then I'd drift back to sleep as the boat moved farther away, searching in the night for the bodies.

Shortly before dawn, I heard the boat again, only this time much closer and accompanied by voices. I got out of the car in the gray light and went around the fire truck to see what was happening. My heart was hammering—I was afraid, but I kept on walking, thinking it’ll be okay, they found the people alive, they’ll be helping them out of the boat just like before.

On my way around the truck, I passed the fireman’s wife. She was leaning against the truck, her face contorted, quietly sobbing, while behind her the men, their faces pale and drawn, lifted the child’s water-swollen body out of the boat.

I turned around. I heard my father telling me to go back to the car—but he didn’t have to tell me, I was already heading there, my legs unsteady and my vision blurring—I remember the birds were singing in the trees, which didn’t seem right to me, and I remember reaching for the door handle—then I was sitting in the car and we were driving home, my father and I, not saying a word, and I looked out the window and saw the sun rising through the breaking clouds, and the pink and golden dawn reflected on the flooded farmland, and up ahead the town, and the silver courthouse dome shining in the sun, and people, and life.