It was supposed to be a relaxing holiday weekend in the Texas Hill Country for a group of nine family members and friends from the Gulf Coast city of Corpus Christi.
Instead, seven remained missing Wednesday, swept away without a trace by floodwater.
The lone survivor, Jonathan McComb, 36, was hospitalized with a broken sternum and rib and a collapsed lung, but was able to tell his father what he could recall of the night last weekend when his family and friends vanished in the swollen Blanco River.
McComb had driven 175 miles north of Corpus Christi to Hays County for a weekend getaway in Wimberley, a popular riverside vacation spot southwest of Austin. He went with wife Laura, 33; son Andrew, 6; daughter Leighton, 4; and their Labrador retriever, Maggie.
His children were outgoing look-alikes with the same dirty-blond hair and brown eyes. They both loved the outdoors, dogs and swimming. Andrew just had a Little League game, Leighton a dance recital.
They went to stay at the home of friends from Corpus Christi: retired dentist Ralph Carey, 73; and his wife, Sue, 71; their daughter, Michelle Charba, 43; her husband, Randy, 42; and their 6-year-old son, William.
“They’ve done this over the years, Fourth of July, Memorial Day, go up to the river to roast hot dogs and float in the river. That’s what the plan was,” McComb’s father, Joe McComb, said by phone Wednesday from Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, where his son was listed in good condition.
Joe McComb, 67, also of Corpus Christi, is a former county commissioner and city councilman who works with his son at the family moving and storage business and knew the rest of the group.
They had heard a storm was coming, he said. But the house, like others in the area, was elevated on stilts. There had been a flash-flood warning, and officials in the area were alerting residents, but it’s not clear whether the group received any calls or messages. One thing is certain, he said; they thought they were safe.
“As evening came, the rain really started coming down good,” McComb said. His son and some of the others went outside to move their cars to higher ground.
“They figured if the river came up a couple feet they didn’t want to get their cars in it,” he said.
About 20 minutes later, they looked out a window.
“They got a flashlight and looked out, and all of a sudden the water was up to the top of the pylons, and they realized they were trapped,” McComb said. “They knew they were in trouble.”
The river had surged to nearly 45 feet, breaking a record set in 1929, creating “a massive wall of water,” he said.
At first, the house held its ground.
“All of them were in the room there holding on to pieces of furniture,” hoping to ride it out, he said.
“All of a sudden a big thud came. I don’t know if it was a big tree got uprooted and floated down the river, but it hit the pylons, the stilts, and the house was displaced,” McComb said.
That’s when Laura McComb called her sister, Julie Shields, in Austin, he said.
“She told her, ‘The house is floating down the river. I don’t know what is happening, but I want to tell mom and dad and you I love you.’ ”
The house floated, carried by the river’s rushing current. But it couldn’t float far, McComb said. Blocking its path was a bridge.
“The house hit the bridge and it took the top part of the house off,” he said. “The house started just coming apart, washing people in all different directions. That’s the last he saw anybody.”
Jonathan McComb was washed away too, “tossed around like a basketball,” unable to tell which way was up.
“He said the force of that water came in and just started taking people in different directions,” his father said.
And so he swam as best he could. At one point, he was hit on the head by a branch.
“He just kept telling himself, ‘I’ve got to get out of here,’ ” McComb said.
“He said, ‘I didn’t know if I was paddling up or down, I just thought with one of those strokes, I was going to hit air.’ ”
Eventually, he did. Then a few miles downriver, he caught hold of an embankment and crawled out.
“He saw a light at someone’s house and was able to pull himself up and knock on the door and tell them something before he passed out,” McComb said.
In the days since, officials searching the area have been joined by other relatives and friends of Jonathan McComb.
On Monday, they found the family dog, Maggie, in a tree, alive and mostly uninjured.
On Tuesday, McComb’s mother-in-law visited him at the hospital.
His three brothers have also visited, and he talked to them about what they found at the site where the Careys’ house once stood.
“He said, ‘Did you find the cars?’ and they said, ‘Yes, they were both full of water,’ ” McComb’s father said.
Rain continued in the Houston area Wednesday and more was expected this week. Although officials said they believed the worst had passed, at least one river was still rising with the potential for further flooding.
In the Houston area, emergency management officials estimated that more than 4,000 homes had been damaged.
Kenneth Bell, an emergency management coordinator in Hays County, said that 744 homes were damaged or destroyed there by the storms.
On Wednesday night, the Charba family said on Facebook that Michelle Charba’s body had been recovered. “We thank you for your incredible support, love and prayers at this difficult time,” the family wrote.
By Wednesday, the death toll from the weekend storms in Texas and Oklahoma reached 20. In addition to the McComb party, at least two other people remain missing statewide.
The McComb family, meanwhile, continues to wait for news and to hope.
“We’re just thankful to God that Jonathan was able to survive and praying that the others will be found and found alive, but it’s a traumatic and dark time,” Joe McComb said. “All of us are realists, but at the same time we’re praying. Miracles do happen. They found the family dog.”