Nashville helicopter pilot Joel Boyers just finished a flying lesson with a student on Aug. 21 when he got a frantic phone call.
A woman from Pennsylvania told him her brother had just left her a goodbye message. He and his two daughters were trapped on their roof surrounded by rushing flood waters in Waverly, Tennessee. And he didn’t think they would survive.
Could Boyers please, please fly to Waverly and rescue her loved ones, she pleaded. The woman had Googled “Nashville helicopters,” and his company was the first to pop up on the internet.
Boyers looked to the west toward Waverly, saw the storm clouds and hesitated.
“Ma’am,” he told her, “no one will fly in this weather, and for good reason.”
But before he finished the sentence, Boyers, co-owner of Helistar Aviation, knew he would go back up.
“I’ve got a daughter myself,” he told the Tennessean. “I told her I’d take off and see what I can see.”
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The weather was terrible and Boyers had to contend with hills and high-voltage power lines on the way to Waverly, a small city about 60 miles west of Nashville. Just before reaching the town, he set down in a field to get his bearings and realized the internet was down, making it impossible to pinpoint the house he was looking for. He flew on anyway.
“As soon as I popped over the ridge, it was nothing but tan raging water below me,” he said. “There were two houses that were on fire. There were cars in trees. There was tons of debris. Any way debris could get caught, it was. I knew no one was going to be able to swim in that.”
Saturday’s flooding killed 20 people, taking out houses, roads, cellphone towers and telephone lines, with rainfall that more than tripled forecasts and shattered the state record for one-day rainfall. More than 270 homes were destroyed and 160 took major damage, according to the Humphreys County Emergency Management Agency.
Boyers, 41, lost cellphone service and couldn’t get to the man and his two daughters. But he soon spotted other people stuck on their roofs, on bridges, in a tree.
“I started picking off whoever I could in hopes that I’d find the original person,” Boyers said.
The woman who originally called him let him know that her brother eventually was saved.
In the meantime, Boyers started landing on roofs and carrying one person at a time to safety. In all, he believes he pulled a dozen or more people out of the flood-ravaged area.
That included a teen girl who had been clinging onto a tree with one arm and a dog that wasn’t hers with the other. Before latching onto the tree, the girl clung to debris with a friend on top of the raging waters. But she and the friend got separated.
“She was pretty shaken up,” Boyers said.
At one point, he spotted four people on the ledge of a roof of a farm supply store where he was able to set down one skid, making three different trips to pick them all up. One was a woman who said she had watched her husband get swept away and had become separated from her daughter, who was on the roof of a nearby gas station. Boyers touched down and rescued the daughter too.
Boyers got inspired when some of the people he rescued agreed to help him get other victims out of danger: “I went and got a guy I rescued, to help pull other people up.”
He ended his mission 90 minutes later when he got low on fuel and he saw professional rescue choppers starting to respond.
“Literally, it just felt like I was working,” he told the Associated Press. “Obviously I tabled the feeling wrenching in everyone’s stomach because of the devastation.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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