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Flood of emotions Volunteers rescue mom and baby from raging waters of Tropical Storm Lee Tragic death at Pumping Station Road Elizabeth Township supervisors, residents applaud storm heroes
By: STEPHEN SEEBER Record Express Correspondent MELINDA ELMER Record Express Correspondent, Staff Writer
"I was preparing to go under with the baby."
That was the mindset of a young mother as she sat on the roof of her stranded car, holding her 18-month-old daughter, in raging flood water at the Hammer Creek bridge on Route 322 in Elizabeth Township. She had just watched the deadly current created by Tropical Storm Lee overtake a nearby vehicle.
"When I saw the white car go under and that lady was dead, I knew it was going to happen to us," said Alicia Estabrook, 28, of Lebanon. "I was picturing in my head being under water and not being able to breathe, and I was just hoping the baby wouldn’t go through too much suffering."
Dianne Barron, 62, also of Lebanon, the driver of that white sedan, never had a chance, according to emergency responders.
"It was quickly submerged, before we could organize a rescue," said Daniel Hogan, a volunteer firefighter from Brickerville who was at the scene in the early morning hours of Sept. 8. "Dispatch had her on the telephone. It’s deeply gut-wrenching."
Focus had to turn toward the four remaining motorists caught in the flash flood — Estabrook, who had climbed through her car’s sun roof with her daughter Tiffany, praying they wouldn’t be next; and two women trapped in their SUV in chest-high water.
The current was too strong for specialized rescue boats, helicopters were grounded, and all conventional retrieval methods had been exhausted over the course of an hour and a half.
"Somebody had to try something or we were going to watch four other individuals be taken away," Hogan recalled.
A group of volunteers hatched a plan, approved by Brickerville Fire Chief Sid Adams, not knowing if they would be heroes or victims … or both.
Hogan, Wilmur Musser, Jeff Strauss, Matt Shirk and Larry Eckert — all with the Brickerville Fire Co. — would use two tracked construction vehicles, from Musser’s excavation company, to pass the seemingly impenetrable 300-foot span of rapids that had taken over the state highway.
This is Hogan’s account of what he calls a miraculous rescue:
"The situation was dire," he said. "Very dire."
Hogan and emergency responders from several companies were on the scene at approximately 11 p.m., Sept. 7. They first attempted to use personal floatation devices and anchored ropes to walk out to the stranded vehicles, but the force of the swift moving water started to drag them downstream.
"It quickly became evident that there was no possibility of anyone walking in that current without drowning," he said.
After several boat rescue attempts failed and National Guard helicopters were not available, they were out of options.
"It seemed like time was just dragging," he recalled.
That’s when Musser suggested the tracked vehicles (like tanks). It had never been done before, not in their experience, but it was the only feasible idea on the table.
Musser would operate one vehicle, with Hogan and Strauss in the front-end loader bucket. Shirk and Eckert would man the second one, which was chained to the first as an anchor.
Musser, Hogan and Strauss entered the water, moving slowly toward Estabrook and her daughter. The rising water was at the roof of the car by this point. Then, when the loader was about five feet from Estabrook, her car started to float downstream. Musser was just close enough to be able to pin the car in place for the rescue.
"We were afraid they were going to be swept away … and they would drown, obviously," Hogan said. "We couldn’t afford another minute."
Strauss climbed onto the roof of Estabrook’s car and passed the mother and her child to Hogan, who helped them into the cab of loader.
"When I saw two huge construction vehicles coming, I was so happy because I knew they were coming for us," Estabrook said. "If it would have been a couple seconds later, my car would have already been washed away. They put it right in front of the car to stop it. It was a miracle that they were able to get us."
"She was almost in a sense of shock," Hogan recalled as he tried to bring some calm to the situation.
He asked how old her daughter was.
She said a year and a half.
"I told Tiffany that she had beautiful eyes, just like my daughter (7-year-old Jadyn)," Hogan said.
Seconds after they were in the safety of the front-end loader, Estabrook’s car washed away and disappeared from view.
From there, the crew pushed forward to the SUV and collected the other two women, who were never identified. And eventually they emerged on the Lebanon side of the water.
"It was the longest 10 minutes of my life," he said.
Unbeknownst to the rescuers, there were two huge sink holes on each side of the tracked vehicle’s path, with about five inches to spare, according to Hogan. One turn to the left or right could have tipped them and sent everyone into the rapids.
"This was strictly volunteer," Hogan recalled. "There was a high probability of a firefighter death. Once inside the cab, before we started, I got down on my knees and said a prayer out loud for us to get through this safely."
Hogan said he gives all the glory to God.
"It wasn’t because of what we did," he said. "It was because God allowed it to happen."
Several hours later, as daylight arrived, they had the grim task of retrieving the drowned woman. Her car was swept off of Route 322 and into sink hole, where the rapids crushed the windshield and flooded the car.
"Our hearts, thoughts and prayers go out to this woman and her family," Hogan said. "Normally you try to maintain an emotional status of not being too involved in a situation; that tends to get emergency responders killed. But it was devastating to a lot of us."
Chief Adams, who has headed the Brickerville company for 38 years, echoed what most have said about the ravages of the storm, that nothing of this magnitude has been seen since Hurricane Agnes in 1972. He also said that unusual circumstances call for unusual measures.
"It was an unconventional, very heroic deed that those guys did," he said. "I don’t know if we could have done it any other way. I’m very very very proud of our firefighters."
In all, approximately 30 emergency responders were on the scene of this incident, including members of the Brickerville Fire Co., Durlach-Mt. Airy Fire Co., South Lebanon Twp. Rescue, Lebanon County Ambulance, Warwick Ambulance, Medic 12, Brickerville Ambulance, rescue boats from Paradise and Pioneer Fire Co. in Ephrata, state and local police.
Adams also pointed out that they received resources from local businesses such as Esbenshade’s Greenhouse, Musser Excavating and Keystone Blasting.
Randy Gockley, Lancaster County emergency management coordinator, said the storm was close but not quite as bad as Agnes.
Lititz and Warwick Township suffered some road closings, flooded basements and one lost dog, but escaped Lee relatively unscathed compared to neighboring communities like Manheim, Ephrata and Marietta.
"It’s hard to believe what a difference five miles made," Gockley said.
In addition to the Route 322 tragedy, an 8-year-old Stevens boy, Kole Alexander Trupe, drowned while playing in flood water near his home. And a few miles to the west, Mark Geib, 53, of Manheim drowned after being swept away while trying to assist others.
Gockley said the county is still in damage assessment mode and will be holding a best-practices meeting in a few weeks to discuss how emergency situations were handled.
In the meantime, Alicia Estabrook has a new lease on life.
"Every day I hold my little baby and thank God that we’re alive, and I’m thankful for the firefighters," she said. "I’m just so thankful that they did not give up." Elizabeth Township’s emergency services providers and road crew have been extraordinarily busy the last few weeks, dealing with the remnants of Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee.
Last week’s flooding took the life of Lebanon resident Dianne Barron, 62, after her car became stranded in high water along Route 322. Four others were rescued at the same scene. The topic was the main discussion during Monday night’s supervisors meeting.
Brickerville Fire Chief Sid Adams told the Elizabeth Township Supervisors that the fire company responded to 42 incidents last week related to Lee. From Wednesday afternoon into Thursday evening his personnel "were on call for 30 hours straight, around the clock. We had 400-plus man hours."
In the overnight hours from Wednesday into Thursday, the firefighters responded to a water rescue call for seven cars in the water (at the Hammer Creek bridge at Route 322 and Pumping Station Road).
"We only found four," he said, "so I guess the other three were able to get through. There was one fatality and four people were rescued. There was raging water up over the guide rail. The rescue boats couldn’t go in there."
"The volunteers performed above and beyond the call of duty," he continued. "It was a very unconventional rescue."
Adams thanked a number of companies which provided assistance for that rescue and for other calls. Musser Excavating provided a track hoe, Keystone Blasting provided two pumps, Esbenshade’s Greenhouses provided a pay loader and a pump, and Elizabeth Township provided a pay loader. Both the Penryn Fire Company and the Durlach-Mt. Airy Fire Company answered calls in Elizabeth Township.
Adams explained to residents that a number of roads were closed and the fire company just couldn’t get to some people. He also had to prioritize the calls by the number of feet of water people had in their homes, with the deeper water receiving top priority.
"Our equipment can’t pump below two inches, so if people called with two inches of water in the basement, we had to tell them to call back if it got worse. We just can’t pump below two inches," Adams said.
"I’m sure we all have our own personal stories or know someone who has a story about the storm," said Supervisor Chairman Brian Wiker, "but what people should remember is the men and women of the fire company who really made a difference and saved lives and saved properties."
Wiker looked directly at Adams and said, "Your members are heroes in my mind."
The room erupted in applause.
Wiker went on to thank supervisor and firefighter Rodney May and the township’s road crew, Glenn Martin and Tim Shreiner, for their extraordinary work during the storm.
Road Superintendent Martin estimated "about $15,000 in actual (road) damage, without man hours or equipment, and without bridge and culvert problems that might turn up in an inspection. Our township did pretty well, except for (the) Pumping Station (area)."
Regarding storm debris clean-up, the supervisors said the township will remove and clean up debris on the roadways, but cannot remove downed trees and limbs from private property.
Township resident Lisa Hocker told the supervisors that she has lived in the township since ’84 or ’85, and likes it so much that she convinced her mother to move here a few years ago. During the Saturday to Sunday of Hurricane Irene, she had to call 911 to assist her mother.
"I never called 911 before," she said. "It took me about 45 minutes to convince myself to call. It was such a good experience, I’ll never forget it.
"If any other residents have concerns about calling 911, I hope they won’t. I feel it is just a privilege to live here. We are neighbors helping neighbors, saving lives."
Hocker named some of her neighbors and mentioned other personnel, including a state trooper, who came to her aid that day.
In other business, supervisor May noted that the Elizabeth Township Park pavilion and bathroom construction project continues.
"The pavilion is ordered," he said.
Bids are out and will be read at the supervisors’ meeting on Oct. 10. The township has an understanding with the Lancaster County Career and Technology Center to have students provide labor for the project.
The township’s storm water management engineer suggested installing underground rainwater controls rather than just a swale.
The supervisors heard brief presentations from the Lititz Public Library and the Lititz recCenter, thanking the township for its annual support of the organizations.
Director Susan Tennant noted that her library’s amount spent per transaction is among the lowest in the county.
"That means that we’re making good use of every dollar, but it also makes it hard to make cuts to our spending," she said.
Tennant noted that the library now has downloadable E-books and audio books and a telescope available to borrow. She is hoping to receive a grant that will put back-copies of the Lititz Record Express online, allowing the old news to be searched by key word. A GPS for geo-caching is on the wish list.
Dick Nuffort, vice president of the Lititz recCenter board, said, "This has been the year of aquatics," referring to the center’s new facilities. "Membership is up and the center has seen an increase in gross revenue" since the aquatic center opening. He noted that the fitness center is also very busy.
At the end of the meeting, May noted that he had received a resident request for speed limit signs on Lake View Drive near the upper end of Speedwell Forge Lake. Wiker suggested putting out the traffic counter equipment to get data on the number and speed of cars on the road.
May concluded the meeting by saying, "On behalf of the board, I’d like to thank everyone who mows alongside our roadways. It saves our road crew having to do it, and it beautifies our township."
Wiker added, "It also gives more visibility."
In other business:
The Brickerville Fire Department report for August was unavailable. The ambulance association responded to 47 calls and the fire police answered 37 calls in August.
The zoning enforcement officer issued 15 permits in August for work valued at $361,218. He responded to many resident complaints and performed a number of permit reviews.
Family Night at the Elizabeth Township Park will be on Saturday, Sept. 24; rain date Sept. 25. There will be free food, a bounce house, a ventriloquist, a juggler, a puppet show and more. It’s sponsored by Coleman Chapel, Brickerville Grace Church, New Beginnings Church and River of Life Ministries.
Bingo is held every Tuesday at the Brickerville Fire Hall, 10 Hopeland Road. Doors open at 5 p.m., the kitchen opens at 5:30 and the games begin at 7.
The Brickerville fire hall is available for rental for family and group functions. Call 626-6711.
Preschool story time is held the second Friday of each month at 10 a.m. at the Elizabeth Township municipal building, 423 Southview Drive. Children and their caregivers are invited to attend this free program sponsored by the Lititz Public Library.
The fall road inspection tour will be on Saturday, Oct. 1, leaving at 7:30 a.m. from the municipal building.
The next board of supervisors meeting will be on Monday, Oct. 10, at 7 p.m. at the municipal building on South View Drive. This meeting will include a public hearing regarding a restated earned income tax ordinance.
The annual budget preparation meeting will be on Monday, Oct. 17, at 7 p.m. at the municipal building on South View Drive. More FLOOD, page A3 More ELIZABETH TOWNSHIP, page A5