On Thursday, a brilliant sunny day after Floyd flooded much of eastern North Carolina, I left the coast, heading up Interstate 40 toward Raleigh, which beckoned with the promise of electricity, telephones and dependable water.
In their infinite wisdom, the planners who designed Interstate 40 between Raleigh and Wilmington put the road between two creeks. Floyd flooded both waterways and the water lapped over the interstate, at several points making the road impassable.
I came upon one of the washovers near Tin City. A long convoy of power company trucks from Detroit and Connecticut pushed through the water heading east to offer help. On my western side of the road, a minivan and another car were in front of me, deciding whether to risk the puddle, which appeared to be about eight inches deep. Trucks seemed to have no problem, but most cars were either making U-turns or pulling onto the shoulder, waiting for who knows what.
The red minivan ahead of me decided to go for it and drove very slowly into the water. About 20 yards into the 60-yard-long puddle, the front wheels slid to the right. The van moved almost sideways toward the sloping grass that led to the creek. There are no guardrails along this interstate.
The van appeared to stall right at the edge of the pavement. It stood there for about 30 seconds. No one else ventured into the puddle. No one bailed out of the van. Then, the current caught the vehicle, and it slid down the embankment--so slowly that it seemed to defy gravity. I called 911. So did others. Some folks jumped out of their cars and waded into the water. Within four minutes, a police helicopter arrived. Troopers drove a truck up to the water's edge. Half a dozen men dove into the water.
But the van slowly disappeared into the creek, leaving only its roof visible. The rescue effort continued for more than half an hour. The only successful rescue was of the first volunteer who had gone in after the minivan.
There would be no other rescue. The driver drowned.
In silence, the line of cars waiting before the puddle turned around and went off in search of dry passage.