Shadyside Struggles for Survival After Flood


It was a week of sadness in Shadyside, a time for goodbys that were all too sudden and too soon.

There were farewells to the young mother who sang in the church choir and to the little boys she loved so dearly. To husbands and wives who lived, then died together. To sons and daughters who played side by side.

Last month, they were victims of nature's fury, a flash flood that killed 24 people, a torrent of water that swept away lives, homes and businesses, ravaging the outskirts of this Appalachian foothills community.

"God never makes you face anything greater than you can handle," said Schools Supt. Bob Henry. But, he said, "Sometimes it really saps your faith."

In the office of Jefferson Elementary School, school board member Bette Anne Ponzo fielded calls at the makeshift crisis center and clutched two pieces of paper: one bearing the names of 24 dead, the other those of nine missing. As more bodies were found, one list grew longer, the other shorter.

In this town of 4,300, so many people have so many memories of the dead.

Ronald Palmer remembers Jerry and Patsy Krupa, a young couple just starting out in life. "They'd do anything in the world for you, help you in any way they could," said Palmer, 30, a firefighter who knew Jerry since kindergarten.

Patsy's 28th birthday was June 17--the day her body was found.

Becky Glaser remembers her daughter's friend Kerri Polivka, 13, a gifted student. "She danced. She sang. She did everything," Glaser said.

Ponzo remembers John and Edna Andrecht. He was a retired school janitor; she baked breads and canned goods for friends.

Ponzo's husband, Ray, remembers the Humphrey boys, David, 10, and Danny, 8, who died with their mother, Sue.

Sue, 35, was in the church choir and played flute when she was in high school. David was a budding saxophonist. Both played for Ponzo, the band director.

"Sue was quiet, but energetic," Bette Anne Ponzo said. "David was the same. Must have been patterned after her. He tried hard."

One generation, then another, now both gone.

"It's always hard for me when a young person goes," she said. "I'm 59. I've pretty much done a lot of the things I should do, but they'll never have a chance. . . . "

Ponzo's eyes brimmed with tears. "You watch kids grow up and have families," she said. "When something like this happens, you hurt. They're part of you."

"Every time there's a loss here, somebody knows them," Glaser said. "Everybody knows everybody's kids. That's why you call it home."

The Pipe and Wegee creeks, two normally tranquil tributaries of the Ohio River, erupted June 15 when 5 1/2 inches of rain fell in less than three hours. A wall of water, 20 feet high and 300 feet wide--as long as a football field--tore through the hollows, ripping asphalt from the ground, snapping trees like toothpicks, hurling cars in the air and sweeping people out of their homes.

It came so fast, there was no warning.

But for every tragedy, for every death, there are amazing stories of survival in Shadyside, tales of people beating the odds, literally hanging on for their lives. Helen Saffle is one.

On the flood night, the 54-year-old diabetic was at home when the power went out and the water rushed in. Soon it was waist-high.

The couch started to float. She latched onto it. She thought she would climb to the ceiling for air, but when she looked, the roof was gone.

The raging water sucked her out of the house as it smashed the place to pieces. She grabbed a tank, let go, repeatedly ducked under the water to avoid debris.

"I kept calm. I prayed all the time," she said. "Then I came up against something solid. It was a tree uprooted. . . . I was completely naked. I had a gown but (had pulled it off because) it was smothering and choking me.

"I remember at one time I thought this must be a dream," she said. "I said, 'No, This is like the Johnstown flood.' "

A rescuer eventually heard Saffle's screams and carried her to safety. She was bruised and cut, but otherwise unharmed. "If it was God's will for me to die, I would have. He needed me for some reason."

Perhaps it was only their own wits and willpower that pulled them through. But many told similar stories.

Nine-year-old Amber Colvin and her baby-sitter, Kerri Polivka, tried to float in a bathtub. The tub broke and Kerri was killed, but Amber clung to a log and wooden shingles in the Ohio River for seven hours before she was able to paddle to shore, about 7 miles from home.

"I can doggie-paddle a little, but I only had to do that once," she said.

Ken Gibbons, who owned the now-destroyed 3 K's Night Club, grabbed his home's rafters as the house was ripped off its foundation. It carried him about 800 yards.

"You ever see a ball in a pinball machine? That's what it was like. I could hear it (the house) hitting stuff and crunching," he said, surveying his crushed 1979 red Corvette and shiny '83 gold Jaguar and clutching one of his remaining belongings--the muddy 1947 wedding certificate of his late parents.

His brother, Charlie, whose trailer was destroyed, was swept under a house as he tried to get his wife and neighbor onto a porch.

Though Charlie Gibbons has heart trouble, he climbed a tree, inching higher as the water rose. "When you're scared, you've got strength, believe me," he said, puffing on a cigarette.

"If his heart didn't get him, and the water didn't get him," said his wife, Fran, "he said he's going to live forever."

For rescuers, it was a week of facing death and destruction, eyeball-to-eyeball.

"You take a house, throw it in a big blender, with all its contents--including human--mix it up, spit it out, that's what it is," said Pat Swallie, a rescuer and public safety coordinator.

"We're seeing autos bent around trees bumper-to-bumper," he said. "The dump trucks were like Tonka toys. The stench of decay, the smell of stagnant water, diesel fuel, raw sewage, dead animals."

More than 850 houses in a three-county area of southeast Ohio were destroyed or damaged.

More than 500 National Guard troops, dozens of dog teams, mounted police, local fire and police and mine rescuers have worked with bulldozers, shovels and their hands, digging, probing and hoping for a miracle.

One body was discovered 25 miles downstream in a logjam of debris near the Hannibal Dam.

There have been other heartbreaking moments. One rescuer found his sister's body in the debris. He continued digging.

Another discovered a woman clutching a pocketbook. Its only contents were tissues and a notepad from the funeral home where she eventually was taken.

"You never get used to it," Swallie said. The rescuers share their experiences. "You don't hold it in. If you do, you're in trouble."

But they forge on, if for no other reason than to end the uncertainty.

"People need to know, they need to bury their dead," Ponzo said. "They need to know there is a final resting place for them."

"We're pulling together, but it's hard," said firefighter Palmer, who aided in the search effort. "We're doing the best we can. It's all so sad."

Amid all the devastation, there are signs of renewal in Shadyside.

"I know we will never be the same again as a town," said Bobbi Brown, a schoolteacher. "(But) you go on. You appreciate life more."

Scores have lined up for applications for federal disaster aid, including Ken Gibbons, who estimates his losses at $300,000.

"Twenty years of work, 20 minutes it's all gone," he said, shaking his head. He's uncertain whether he'll rebuild his business.

Fran and Charlie Gibbons will find another place to live.

"There ain't nothing here anymore," he said, staring at the rubble-strewn field where his trailer once stood. "It's not even like home after 30-something years."

His wife has nightmares of her home being encased in mud. "It's like something you love, and now you're afraid of it," she said.

But others are determined to stay. Even in its wretched condition, Shadyside is their home.

Martha Wright Foster said her father's home is salvageable. "He lived through the '36 flood, the Depression and World War II. . . . He wanted this piece of property ever since he was a little boy. He wants back in."

"If you didn't have hope for starting over," said Ponzo, "there wouldn't be much sense in getting up."

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