Dramatic river rescue among several Hawkins flooding problems

Jeff Bobo • Feb 7, 2019 at 10:40 AM

SURGOINSVILLE — Hawkins County residents probably don’t need to hear the Johnny Cash song that asks, “How high’s the water, Papa?” because they can look out their window and see for themselves.

Shortly before 10 a.m. Thursday, several Hawkins County first responders were dispatched to a school bus stuck in high water with the driver trapped inside in a field off Sprice Pine Road in a rural area northwest of Rogersville.

According to police scanner traffic, the driver was safely pulled from the bus uninjured within about 10 minutes of the initial call. HCSO Deputy Mark Harrell reportedly waded in water above his knees to rescue the driver. 

Route 66-N near the Hancock County line was closed due to half the roadway collapsing down the side of the hill.

Earlier that morning, rescue squad, first emergency, highway and utility crews were dealing with dozens of flooded roads throughout Hawkins County, as well as slides and fallen electric poles.

There were also multiple vehicles reported stuck in the water, one of which included a dramatic rescue at Big Creek on Blevins Road just east of Rogersville.

“She was trapped ... and the water was rising”

Hawkins County Emergency Management Agency Director Gary Murrell said, “She was trapped in the vehicle and the river was rising on her.”

Around 6:30 a.m., rescuers responded to a report of a pickup off the roadway in the water floating with a trapped driver.

“She couldn’t get out. Water was coming in on her,” Murrell said. “I was about a mile and a half from that location when the call was dispatched, and I arrived at the same time as the first deputy on the scene, and then some other fire and rescue responders arrived, and we made a plan to try to get to her with life jackets and rope. It was deep and swift (water) trying to get to her, and the only thing holding the truck from going down the creek was a tree. It was nose down in the water.”

HCRS member John Gardner and HCSO Deputy Mark Harrell reached the bed of the pickup, broke out the back window, and pulled out the driver, Connie Hickman. They put a life jacket on her and attached a rope to pull her to shore.

Murrell said Gardner and Harrell started upstream and swam with the strong current to reach the pickup.

“They went above and beyond the call of duty,” Murrell said.

Murrell added, “She was on her way to work, and what people need to understand is, if you live there you know where it floods. If you get on the road and it’s raining hard and starting to flood, and there’s a sign that says do not enter during high water, that means that road floods. It just swept her truck right off the road.”

A second trapped vehicle

About 30 minutes after the Blevins Road rescue, deputies, firefighters and the HCRS were dispatched to another report of two people trapped on top of a partly submerged vehicle in Poor Valley in a Clinch community north of Rogersville.

“When we got over there, we couldn’t find the two people on top of it, but we did find the vehicle, but the people had left the area,” Murrell said.

Flooding was countywide

Murrell said every creek in Hawkins County rose higher than officials anticipated, and Big Creek was higher than he had seen it in many years.

Around 10:30 p.m. Wednesday, there was so much water crossing the road on Route 66-S at Bulls Gap they closed the highway.

Then there was a slide that blocked Route 31 at the exact same time Route 113 in St. Clair was closed due to flooding, and then Route 66-N had a small slide.

“It wasn’t just one area of the county. We had calls in Clinch Valley, Bulls Gap, St. Clair, Church Hill, Mount Carmel, Goshen Valley — I mean we had them all over the county. It hit over the whole area and it didn’t let up.”

Shortly after 4 a.m. Thursday, the decision was made to cancel school in Hawkins County due to so many flooded roads. As of 10 a.m., Murrell estimated there were still 30-40 roads impassible due to high water.

High winds were predicted for Thursday night, and Murrell was concerned that the saturated ground would loosen root systems and result in a rash of fallen trees.

“We’ve been lucky lately, but it seems like this time we got dumped on,” Murrell said. “It’s a mess.”

Hawkins County school bus driver rescued near Spruce Pine Road, courtesy of Casey Johnagin.


Flooding at Amis Mill Dam near Rogersville courtesy of Deborah Gilliam Elkins