Heartache and Fatigue Cloud Search for Kentucky Flood Victims


The last time Heather Blair saw her disabled son, Richard, both were fighting for their lives as floodwaters rose inside their home.

Richard Blair, unable to walk because of cerebral palsy, was on the bed as a swollen creek invaded the home that Heather Blair rented for her and her three sons near tiny Flat Gap.

“The whole house started caving down on us,” Heather Blair said Thursday from a hotel in nearby Paintsville. “Everybody ended up in the water trying to fight for their life in all that debris … the strength of that water was nothing I’ve ever seen. It was hell.”

She said she never heard Richard say a word.

Richard Blair, 22, was one of at least three people killed when a flash flood devastated this rural stretch in eastern Kentucky, about 120 miles east of Lexington. His body was found Wednesday afternoon.

Another man remains missing.

Heather Blair said her son had cerebral palsy and used a wheelchair for mobility. She said after a mobile home struck theirs, the floodwaters rose rapidly and she went underwater. When she resurfaced, Richard had disappeared. Blair’s 14-year-old son swam to safety and a man rescued her 9-year-old.

Dozens of rescue crews continue to comb the devastated area, which stretches more than 8 rugged miles from the town of Flat Gap south to Staffordsville.

The flooded creek’s violent current hampered rescue efforts for three days.

Police officers, deputies, firefighters, state troopers, National Guardsman and volunteers have trudged door-to-door across this rugged Appalachian terrain about 120 miles east of Lexington, painting orange x’s on each structure they search.

They’ve battled swarming mosquitoes and snake-infested creeks, piles of rubble 10 feet tall and mud so thick it sucks the shoes off their feet.

Randall Mulkey, a firefighter from a nearby county who volunteered to help search, said he’s seen homes splintered into rubble, others split in half. Tromping through the mud is exhausting, he said. It breaks his heart to see people’s belongings — clothes, toys, photographs — among the wreckage and know they lost everything they had.

Kevin Johnson stood weeping Thursday morning among the rubble of this devastated town, weighing an impossible decision.

A wake is scheduled Thursday afternoon for his 74-year-old mother, killed when a flash flood destroyed her trailer three days ago and swept her away. But his son, who tried to save her, remains missing.

“What do I do?” Kevin Johnson pleaded. “Do I go down there or do I stay here? Mom would want me to stay here.”

Scott Johnson, a 34-year-old musician, was last seen Monday, wading through rushing floodwater with his grandmother on his back.

Scott Johnson had already guided his father, uncle and sister from the raging flood that inundated their cluster of trailers. He turned back one last time to save his grandmother, whom he called Nana. Both were washed away.

“I’m praying for a miracle, that we find him alive,” Kevin Johnson said, inconsolable as he overlooked the creek that swallowed his son. The Johnson family hauled a jon boat into the water Thursday to search for themselves.

“We have to find him,” Kevin Johnson said. “I can’t go on like this. The Lord is going to let us find him.”

The grandmother he tried to save, Willa Mae Pennington, was found dead Tuesday, Johnson County Coroner J.R. Frisby confirmed.

Her brother had been a musician. He went by the stage name Scott Free, started his own hip hop record label and released an album in 2013 called “Welcome to Hollerwood.” On his website he said he tried in his music to capture the Appalachian spirit and the struggle to survive amid the grinding poverty and drug addiction that has long tormented his native state.

Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear declared a state of emergency, giving local officials immediate access to state resources.

As families returned to search the ruins of their homes, church groups and others passed out food and neighbors banded together to clear heavy debris. Police said they hoped there still might be some happy endings.

Retired truck driver Herman Eddie May Sr., 56, was also killed. His daughter, Amy Akers, said they lived next door to each other. When the water started rising, he got in his car to search for a safe escape route. He reached the top of the hill and turned back to retrieve his daughter and two grandchildren. A neighbor begged him to stay on dry land but he refused, Akers said.

The car stalled in the rising water and May got out. A neighbor threw him a rope, but a floating truck plowed into the car, he lost his grip and the water carried him away, Akers said. Neighbors pulled him from the water, but it was too late.

SOURCE: The Associated Press, Bruce Schreiner and David Stephenson

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