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Rescue averts family tragedy on Saline River

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RUSSELL — A family camping weekend almost turned to tragedy early Sunday were it not for a rescue carried out by “everyday guys.”

Nicole Barrera, Russell, and members of her family from Russell and Ellis counties had planned for approximately a month for the Labor Day weekend outing along the Saline River northwest of Russell, about a mile and a half from where her parents live.

Saturday was a beautiful day for camping, Barrera said.

“We fished in the river that day. We had a spaghetti feed that night on the campfire, and we sat around the campfire roasting marshmallows,” she said.

Barrera said they were aware of storms to the north, but it hadn’t really rained at their location.

“There is no way we would imagine it would come up over its banks and did what it did,” she said.

More than 5 to 7 inches of rain was reported across parts of northern Russell and Ellis counties and parts of Rooks County that night, according to the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network. Much of that water went into the Saline River.

Records from the U.S. Geological Survey on the Saline River north of Russell show the river gauge height at 6.3 feet and discharging around 65 cubic feet per second for much of the overnight hours Saturday and into Sunday. But at about 3:30 a.m., it began to rise. Just a few minutes before, the National Weather Service issued a flood warning for much of Russell County.

Cellphone service was not reliable in the area where the family was camping, though, Barrera said.

Within an hour, the gauge had risen to more than 8 feet with a discharge of 234 cubic feet per second. By 5 a.m., it was at almost 10 feet and flowing at 434 cubic feet per second.

Barrera’s uncle was the first to awaken and realize the water was rising. It was before daylight. He started yelling at everyone to get up.

“One of the girls said when they stood up in the tent, the air mattresses they were sleeping on were actually floating,” Barrera said. “It’s amazing those tents didn’t float away with the kids in it.”

Barrera said her brothers tried to get to their vehicles to get everyone to safety.

“They no more got out of their tents and got into their vehicles, and the water was coming so fast it stalled out the vehicles,” she said.

Some of the adults waded and swam for dry ground, taking some of the children with them.

But some were still back at the campsite — nine children and several adults climbed on top of a camper as the water continued to rise. Among them were Barrera’s children and her sister, as well as Dan Miner of Hays and his children.

Barrera’s uncle called her cousin, Jack Brown in Gorham, for help at approximately 6:20 a.m. By that time, the river height measured 12.38 feet and flowed at 1,250 cubic feet per second.

Brown had been at the camp site until about 10:30 p.m. Saturday. His 5-year-old son, Nolan, wanted to stay, so he camped overnight with family members.

“When my uncle called him, he said, ‘Jack you need to get out here fast and bring a boat,’ ” Barrera said.

“I thought he was joking,” Brown said. “Then I realized he wasn’t.”

Brown called a friend in Russell, Chris Pasek, and with another friend, Durk Wecker, they headed for the river with a boat. They had no idea how serious the situation was until they got there.

“When I got out of the pickup to where we could unload the boat, I was waist deep,” Brown said.

Nolan was among the children and adults who already had made it to safety.

“I saw a picture of my cousin when he was carrying my kid out, and the water line on his shirt was at the top of his shoulders,” Brown said.

“I’ve thought about this a million times,” he said Tuesday. “They should have never got out of there. They honestly never should have gotten out of there.”

Brown, Pasek and Wecker got the boat into the water. The remaining campers were approximately 260 to 280 yards out. The water still was rising, and the current was fast, Brown said. Other than the camper, none of the eight vehicles at the campsite were visible above water. It was still before dawn.

“What we did, we try to stay along the grass, the bank as much as we could until we had to go across because we didn’t want to get out in that current either,” Brown said. “We got all the kids first, took them back and unloaded them and then got the adults and brought them back across.”

Barrera said it was about an hour from the time the family members got on top of the camper until the rescue was complete.

The timing was very close.

By 7:30 a.m., the river gauge was at 13 feet and flowing at 1,550 cubic feet. Fifteen minutes later, the river was at 13.81 feet and 2,020 cubic feet per second. By 8 a.m., it was at 14.66 feet and flowing at 2,630 cubic feet per second.

“As soon as the boat got there and they got the last person off, (the camper) was completely covered,” Barrera said.

“Another little bit longer, and I don’t know if we’d have got as lucky as we did,” Brown said.

“If it had been another 15 minutes, none of them would have made it,” Barrera said. “It’s just a crazy story, and we’re just grateful. If it wasn’t for those everyday guys, we would have a lot of funerals to be planning.”

Brown said while he realizes now how frightening the situation was, at the time it wasn’t something he thought about.

“Everyone had to do what you had to do. You just had to go,” he said.

But even at the age of 5, Brown’s son realized the danger they were in.

“He’s told me and my wife about 10 times now, and for him to tell the story, he said, ‘Daddy I thought we were dead,’ ” Brown said.

“I just thank the good Lord everyone made it out.”

Juno Ogle has worked at The Hays Daily News since 1999 as a reporter, copy editor and graphic designer. She covers area businesses and events, and higher education, among other topics.