Paramedic Gary Ryan was driving to work at the Danville Life Saving Crew in the mid-afternoon of Oct. 11, 2018, so he could be dispatched with the special operations team when he was redirected to a scene: floodwaters had risen several feet near the intersection of Arnett Boulevard and Wendell Scott Drive.
After detouring and finding somewhere to park, he arrived to see an ice box from the front of the gas station across the street float through the swift-moving water and plummet over a guardrail and into the rushing water below. A dumpster from across the street sat near the guardrail, moved by the tide that appeared to have poured out of nowhere.
Nearby was a man who had escaped from a car stuck in the rising waters. Ryan, unable to hear him over the roaring rain and wind, swapped hand signals to make sure he was safe.
That's when Ryan spotted a car inching toward the same guardrail. He trudged through the current to the car and asked one of the occupants — a husband and wife were inside — to get out and follow him to safety. The husband was blind, so Ryan had him wrap his arms around his neck and follow him. Ryan then returned to lead the wife to safety before the car reached the guardrail.
Then he spotted another car coasting on the current.
“This car was moving swiftly toward that same spot," he said.
Ryan radioed for help.
The rising tide carried the white car onto the guardrail, where it teetered in the air over a rushing river that moments earlier had been little more than a babbling brook.
Ryan knew there had to be someone in the car, but he couldn't see the two occupants who sat helplessly inside, mere inches from plummeting into the water below, just like the ice box.
Nobody had predicted that the rains of Oct. 11, 2018, would wreak such damage and devastation. Mid-morning, the National Weather Service issued a wind advisory, seeing the threat of downed trees. A generally wet season with a bevy of rainstorms had already softened the ground throughout the Dan River Region.
“We knew there would be heavy rain, we knew there would be gusty winds, but we couldn’t pinpoint exactly where that axis of catastrophic rain would fall until we started to see that materialize on radar," said Phil Hysell, a warning coordination meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Blacksburg.
The threat came from a hurricane turned tropical storm that was tracking up the East Coast. As Tropical Storm Michael — a hurricane that formed in the Caribbean on Oct. 9 — was moving up, a cold front was moving southeast, where it would eventually converge with Michael. Hysell and the National Weather Service were closely monitoring the progress of both.
"The timing of that front was really critical," Hysell said. "If the front had been a little slower, Michael would have tracked a little to the west. If the front was faster it would have pushed further south.”
Around 1:30 p.m., the National Weather Service issued its first flash flood warning for the region.
With the possibility of flooding in the forecast, the Danville Life Saving Crew was on high alert and preparing for an heavy influx of calls. Extra employees and volunteers came in, while others remained on call.
There was no preparing for the volume of calls that would hit emergency lines.
When the band of precipitation hovered above and pounded the region, inundating the city of Danville with more than 6 inches of rain in mere hours, the National Weather Service issued a flash flood emergency — a rare warning used only when serious flooding is imminent — around 4 p.m
“It became pretty apparent then that this was going to be a pretty rare event," Hysell said.
As the floodwaters rose, 911 calls began pouring into the Danville emergency center much faster than dispatchers could keep up. Brian Cochran, who has worked there for three years, said he hasn't seen anything like that before or since.
"It was a shock to the system," he said.
Dispatchers that day triaged calls based on urgency and type of rescue operation needed. For instance, dispatcher Stewart Moore fielded calls as they came in, directing the most urgent ones meant for fire and EMS to Cochran. But the calls, many of them repeats, kept piling up on top of each other, resulting in over 300 abandoned ones lighting up the screen at one point. The most abandoned calls Stewart and Cochran recall seeing pile up at one time outside of that day was four.
Stewart and the others worked as fast as they could to efficiently direct the calls in the right direction, leaving no time for anything else.
"We couldn’t actually talk with our families or anything like that to check on them because we were concerned about the citizens and wanted to make sure that everybody was safe," Stewart said.
More than 2,000 total emergency and administration calls flooded into the Danville 911 center that day, roughly four times as many as an average day, said Danville Emergency Communications Manager Michael Gobble.
In Danville and Pittsylvania County, three people lost their lives to the flooding.
In the water
With the water rising as fast as it did, law enforcement and first responders were spread thin throughout the city, rescuing motorists from swamped vehicles and checking on flooded houses and businesses to ensure the safety of as many people as possible.
Detective Jonathan Masi, Cpl. John Dixon and Lt. David Whitley were in their offices at the Danville Police Department when water started to seep under the front door.
If the storm was attacking the police department like that, they reasoned, then there must be people throughout the city who needed help.
Without taking time to change out of their dress shirts and ties, the officers rushed out the door and jumped in a pickup truck.
"We didn't question what we were going to do or how we were going to do it," Masi said. "We just went in and did it."
One of the first things they saw was the deck of a house floating through the rushing flood waters.
They headed to the intersection of Arnett Boulevard and Wendell Scott Drive, where Ryan had radioed for help after seeing the white car teeter over the edge of the guardrail.
At the time, no one knew there were two women in the car. They knew only that someone needed help.
“We had a limited window of opportunity to get them out," said Bryan Fox, assistant director of the Danville Life Saving Crew, who had arrived at the scene.
The group of rescuers waded through rushing, waist-deep water to attach to the car a cable from the front of a Danville Life Saving Crew vehicle.
As the group struggled with the cable, Ryan lost his footing on an eroded section of road when he switched places with Whitley.
“I don’t have any idea how long I was down,” he recalled.
The current had him pinned him against something — what he doesn’t know — until Whitley reached his hands under the water and pulled him up by the shoulders.
Once they hooked the cable onto the rear right tire, the first responders, including Dixon and Whitley, held onto it as they fought to open a door, get the women out and hand them life jackets.
From there the rescuers directed them to the safety of dry land.
Officers Charles Willard and Steven Cannady had just returned from a call when they came across people trapped in their cars around Memorial Drive and Cleveland Street.
Willard was helping a woman through knee-high rushing water when the current swept them off their feet.
"It was like being on some crazy waterslide that you couldn’t stop," he said.
Members of the Danville Life Saving Crew had to pull them out of the water.
Crew members also directed traffic to prevent more cars from entering the rising tide, but many motorists ignored them while others who had turned away repeatedly returned because there was no way out the area.
When first responders finished clearing the area near Wendell Scott Drive, they moved on to Riverside Drive, near the intersection of Audubon Drive.
“Audubon was kind of a gutter," Willard said.
Walking west, Dixon, Masi and Whitley worked their way through the water, checking for occupants in each of the cars that had become ensnared in the water. Whitley told everyone to turn their cars off since most of the exhaust pipes were blocked underwater.
At one stranded car, the team spoke through a cracked window to a woman inside. They opened a door to help her out and water raced in to swamp the inside almost immediately.
Through the rushing, near waist-high water, they guided the woman to the nearest safe space: a dry area of land behind the nearby NAPA auto parts store.
As they waded, Dixon and Masi made small talk with the woman, asking about where she was from and what she was up to.
"We can stop if you want," Dixon said after they had waded a while. "Are your legs getting tired?"
"Mmmhhh, I just want to get out of here," she replied.
As Masi waded through the water, a full tire with the rim still attached slammed into his leg.
While these operations were underway, other first responders worked throughout the city. In addition to the felled trees that leveled power lines and blocked roads, several small mudslides — including one on Central Boulevard and another on Memorial Drive — added to the already clogged traffic.
Upstream from the crews working at the intersection of Arnett Boulevard and Wendell Scott Drive, four Life Saving Crew members were in a raft, pulling people from apartments near the Tinytown mini golf course.
The mobile home park on Parker Road was hit hard by a nearby creek that now flowed like a river, Cannady said.
“It just looked like a river, a lake really… I’ve never seen water like that," he said.
Throughout the afternoon and into the evening, dispatchers processed and prioritized calls as fast as they could, but communication was difficult. Radio channels were overcrowded, while the surge in phone calls congested the towers. And the power was out almost everywhere.
“You’ve got the entire city in some sort of chaos," Willard said.
All in all, Dixon, Whitley and Masi helped 19 people to safety, while Willard and Cannady got another 10.
Fox estimates the Danville Life Saving Crew helped as many as 90 people get to safety that day.
"Everything that the fire department owned had people on it," said Capt. Tommy Napier with the Danville Fire Department.
Added Fox: “Saying the resources were taxed is almost an understatement because we had no more bodies and no more vehicles to put on the road."