Capitol Hill life was too hectic for Robert and Patricia Wichser, who both worked there as congressional aides. So earlier this year they left the fast lane and went off to raise sheep in the Shenandoah Valley, near a town whose name evokes long-ago, far-away promises of youth, peace, kinship with the land: Woodstock.
Monday night, as the waters of the Shenandoah River rose higher and higher, the Wichsers' small flock became stranded in a pasture. They made a desperate attempt to save their dream -- a gambit that ended with Robert Wichser missing, apparently washed down the river. Searchers have been unable to find him.
The Wichsers were trying to ferry their sheep one by one to safety in a canoe, aided by Robert Wichser's 68-year-old father, who was guiding the nighttime operation with a flashlight. Suddenly the canoe disappeared, and the elder Wichser heard a cry for help from his daughter-in-law.
Yesterday, Patricia Wichser, 40, was safe. Her father-in-law managed to throw her a rope as she clung to tree branches in the river. But more than 20 rescue workers on boats and in scuba gear continued to search miles of river shoreline for her 42-year-old husband, whose voice was last heard through the darkness shortly after the canoe capsized and plunged the couple into the river.
Wichser's disappearance was one of the many personal tragedies that emerged from the destruction wrought in Virginia and West Virginia by this week's flood. "From one end to the other, anything that was built along the river is no longer there," said Shenandoah County Sheriff Marshall Robinson, who was directing the search for Wichser from the family's farm.
"There's lumber strung along the banks from one end of the valley to the other," he said. "Trucks, cars, they just went on down the river. All the swinging bridges are gone. Trailers are wiped out. It was just incredible how it came through here."
Robinson said he was "not very optimistic" that Robert Wichser, the only reported casualty in that area, would be found alive.
News of the disappearance struck hard in the office of Rep. Edwin V.W. Zschau (R-Calif.), where Robert Wichser had been administrative assistant until earlier this year. Patricia Wichser had held an identical post in the office of Rep. Thomas J. Tauke (R-Iowa) before the couple moved permanently to their farm near Woodstock, 95 miles west of Washington.
"It's really hard to talk about it right now," said Zschau's current administrative assistant, Jim LeMunyon. "We just loved to work for him. They used to go out there every weekend. It was an opportunity to just get away from it, which we all wish we could do."
"I'm sure he didn't know the back end of a sheep from the front end," said Wichser's father, also named Robert, a retired manager for Quaker Oats. "He didn't know anything about farming. But he was so determined. And he was doing it. He was doing it. They were going to make it."
The younger Wichser, a Harvard Law School graduate who originally came to Washington to work for then-senator Everett M. Dirksen (R-Ill.), was finishing the roof on the couple's new sheep barn Monday afternoon when the rising Shenandoah began to threaten the pasture where some of their sheep were grazing.
"With the water coming up so fast, the sheep were trapped," said the elder Wichser, who was helping with the construction. "By the time we realized things were really bad, there were about 40 sheep over there.
"We were trying to rescue the sheep," he said. "But how in the world do you do it? The first thing we thought of was putting the sheep rack on the truck and driving through the water because it wasn't very deep. We tried to do that and the truck just grounded out and stalled in the water. By the time we got a tractor there to pull it out, the river had risen. It was up over the floorboards in the truck. What next?
"We were hunting for ropes, getting the tractor stuck and bringing in the backhoe to pull it out. It was getting dark. The last thing my son thought of was, 'Let's get the canoe.'
"We didn't have any life preservers. We only had a canoe," he said. "At first, the ferrying went pretty well. One at a time. I was on the high side with my flashlight. By now, it was pitch black and there were three sheep left and the water had risen so that it was maybe 200 feet wide.
"Bob yelled back, 'There's no ground left! The sheep are in the water!' One of them took off swimming downstream and bawling like mad. Bob said, 'Let him go and let's get the other two!' I kept shining my sealed-beam on the other two and they started swimming. Bob and Pat started after the sheep in the canoe and the second two that went out swam ashore just ahead of me.
"I saw that they were safe and I kept shining my light on Bob and Pat as they went through the gate at the end of the field. The water was going down that way like crazy.
"Nobody in the area was expecting anything like this. Nobody said it was going to be a disaster," Wichser said. "I still had the light on them. I called, 'Bob, do you have the sheep?' He answered, 'We have the sheep and it's in the boat.'
"He was out of sight. Within just a few seconds, I heard Pat call, 'Help! Please hurry!' I said, 'I'm coming! I'm coming!' I found her in some pretty heavy woods and the incline on the bank was maybe 50 feet of drop on a 40-degree slope. I saw her hanging to the tree.
"I yelled for my son and he answered and by the tone of his voice, it wasn't panicky. He's a very good swimmer, and I just figured he had grabbed a tree. I immediately felt that Pat needed the help first, but all I had was a flashlight. I didn't have a rope and she was about 25 feet out from me. I tried to throw branches to her.
"Finally, I had to go back to the truck." Wichser's voice caught. "It was a half a mile away to get the rope. It took me half an hour. I prayed, 'Dear Lord, let me throw this rope right,' and I did. I got her. She had a hard time getting the rope around her waist, but she did.
"The current was so heavy. The poor girl was cold. I'm sure hypothermia must have set in. I said, 'I will not pull it until you tie it around you.'
"Somebody up above must have heard me. I did get her back. But I had no answer from my son. No answer from my son."
Wichser said Patricia immediately wanted to search for her husband. "She said, 'Let's look for Bob.' I said, 'There's no way you're going back there.' We went back to the house and called the neighbor Robert Rush . He knew the area pretty well. He and I went back to look for Bob with flashlights and ropes.
"The way people come in to help you, it's just fantastic. Absolutely fantastic." Wichser wept. "I'm sorry I break up. But it's my son. It's hard to lose. Forty years old. Prime of life.
"This is their dream here, the farm," he said. "What does this poor little girl do now?
"My wife and I, we're going to stay. String fences. We were going to leave Sunday, go back to our home in Florida. Now, I don't know. There's so much damage. Fences down. Buildings down. But we're going to make it."