Incident at Possum Walk Creek

Downed trees blocked his way, but he learned there was a larger task awaiting him.

- Posted on May 19, 2014

Gary Snelson and the young woman he rescued

“Gary! We need you here right now!” The dispatcher’s voice on the phone jarred me awake. Rain and wind rattled the windows something fierce.

My bedroom seemed darker than normal. I searched for the clock on my nightstand, but couldn’t find it. The heck with it. I had to get to work. They wouldn’t be calling if it wasn’t an emergency.

“I’m on my way,” I said, swinging my legs out of bed. “Be there in ten.”

I found my closet, grabbed a pair of work jeans, a shirt and my tool belt. I pushed my arm through a sleeve and felt a familiar surge of adrenaline. People were counting on me. That’s just the way the job is when you work for the electric company. Most people stay inside in a storm. We go out.

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I felt for my watch, billfold, keys and cell phone on the dresser. Then kissed my wife, Debbie, goodbye. “I’ll be back as soon as I can,” I said.

“Be careful out there,” she said. “I’ll be praying.”

So will I, "I thought.

Outside, the rain was beginning to let up some. I was glad for that. All the sooner I’d be able to get folks’ power back on.

I’m with the White River Valley Electric Cooperative deep in the Ozarks. The power goes out a lot up in the mountains and we scramble when it does. And this was no ordinary storm. The aftermath of Hurricane Ike had hit us. We thought it might not. Now lines were down all across the county.

I jumped in my Ford Ranger pickup and fired up the ignition. The dashboard clock read 5:10 A.M. I live less than five miles from the main office. I’d be there by twenty after, maybe sooner, and get my assignment.

I pulled out onto State Hwy 160, a two-lane road, the only one into town, and headed west, the truck picking up speed. But...what was that in the road? My headlights shone on a tree that had fallen smack across both lanes. I stopped and flipped on my flashers. Got out to examine the tree.

I’m a big guy, six-foot-four, 280 pounds. But the tree was way too large for me to lift. In fact, it looked like there was more than one tree down, almost as if they’d been placed there, completely blocking my way. Funny, I thought. These trees are bigger than the rest, like they don’t belong here.

I got the dispatcher on my cell and explained the situation to him. “Is there someone who could swing by and pick me up?” I pleaded.

“No,” he said. “Everyone is out working. Just get here as fast as you can. I’ll give the highway department a head’s up about the trees.”

I hung up, frustrated. How on earth was I going to get to the office? I could take a maze of county roads, but there was no telling what condition they’d be in. The last thing I wanted to do was get stuck. I’d be totally useless then.

Only one other option: Backtrack to State Hwy J, then loop around on Hwy T. It would take at least 40 minutes, maybe more, and there could be flooding. Still, what choice did I have?

I climbed in the truck and headed back the way I’d come.

It felt like I was never going to get there! I knew how much work there was to do. Getting trees off of power lines. Putting up new poles. Stringing new line. It would be dark again before we were finished.

Everyone else would be hard at work by now. I wanted to be out there too, doing my job, a job I love.

I’d been called out hundreds of times in all kinds of weather. Ice storms. Tornadoes. Never once had that stretch of highway been blocked. God, why’d it have to be blocked this time? I demanded. I know, no way to speak to God, but I was at my wit’s end.

At last I merged onto Hwy T. The road was swamped. Possum Walk Creek. Normally a trickle. Now, though, it had turned into a treacherous, fast-flowing river. What else could go wrong?

I gripped the steering wheel tight and peered toward the creek, some 50 yards away. In the dark it was hard to tell how deep the water was, but I knew better than to chance it. There was nothing to do but turn around. Wait ...did I see something?

Yes! A car. I could hear its horn honking. Faintly, but urgently. Over and over.

I jumped out of my truck and plunged through the rushing water. The force almost knocked me down. It was nearly two feet deep. It flowed more rapidly the closer I got to the creek. I could see a woman inside the car. “Help! Help!” she screamed, her arms waving madly at me.

Her car was stuck on the road right above the culvert that normally restrained the creek. Muddy water streamed between trees on either side and crashed violently over the road. For now, I didn’t think her car would be swept downstream, but...if those tree roots didn’t hold?

One could come crashing down at any minute. I’d already seen what this storm could do.

I threw open the door of her car. “We’ve got to get out of here,” I yelled over the rain and wind. The woman was pale and shaking, clearly terrified. She clung to my arm as we walked slowly through the water. Finally we got back to my truck.

“You saved my life,” she said. “I didn’t think anyone was ever going to come. My cell phone wouldn’t work. And then there you were. How did you find me? I hadn’t seen another car in I don’t know how long. I was ready to give up and say my last prayers.”

“Truth is,” I said, “I’m just trying to get to work. There were these trees blocking the road...” I trailed off. Those trees. What if they hadn’t just fallen in my way? What if a force greater than nature put them there?

In the dark of night I had answered a call to go into work. But it turned out that Someone needed me for a different assignment that day. A lifesaving one.


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