FLAT GAP, Ky. (AP) — As the Johnson family dug through the wreckage where their trailers once stood, they found a mud-soaked box of family photos, cherished heirlooms and a tiny porcelain statue of Jesus, but not what they were looking for.
Scott Johnson, 34, was swept away two days ago, trying to save his grandmother as a flash flood Monday ravaged this rural eastern Kentucky community.
He is still missing. Three others are confirmed dead, and the fate of four more remains uncertain. Families reported them missing, but they could be stranded in their homes, without power or phone service.
Rescue teams are slogging through knee-deep mud, door-to-door, across the rugged Appalachian terrain, painting orange “X”s on each structure they search. Desperate families roam the banks of the swollen creek, looking for their lost loved ones.
Kevin Johnson last saw his son Scott wading through rushing floodwater with his 74-year-old 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, called Nana, and a 13-year-old family friend.
“We told him, ‘You can’t make it,'” his father recalled. “He said, ‘I’m going to get her out of that trailer.”
Standing in a cemetery on a hill overlooking the creek that had swallowed his son, Kevin Johnson was so overcome with grief he sometimes struggled to speak. He had watched his son push the boy to safety in the branches of a catalpa tree and hoist his Nana onto his back, only to be swept away.
“Scott wouldn’t turn her loose, that’s why he died,” said Veronica Marcum, Scott Johnson’s sister.
The grandmother, Willa Mae Pennington, was found dead Tuesday among debris from the family’s shattered mobile homes, Johnson County Coroner J.R. Frisby confirmed.
Herman Eddie May Sr., 56, was also killed. His daughter, Amy Akers, said they lived next door to each other. When the water started to rise, he got in his car to search for a safe passage away. 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.
“He always said he would die trying to protect his family, and that’s exactly what he did,” she said.
The car stalled in the rising water and May, a retired truck driver, 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. Neighbors pulled him from the flood, but it was too late.
The body of a third victim, 22-year-old Richard Blair, was found Wednesday afternoon, on a creek bank in a pile of tree debris and downstream from the rubble of a broken mobile home, the coroner said.
Rescue crews battled swarming mosquitoes, oppressive humidity and mud so thick it sucked off shoes. Utility crews lined the roads, trying to restore power to thousands still without it. A convoy of National Guard vehicles and heavy equipment rolled through the hardest-hit areas.
Randall Mulkey, chief of Allen Volunteer Fire Department in nearby Floyd County, came to help with the search. He said he’s seen homes splintered into rubble, others split in half and cars strewn in places he never could have imagined. Tromping through the mud is exhausting he said, and it’s devastating to see people’s belongings — clothes, toys, photographs — scattered everywhere, some piled 10 feet high.
The arduous search, destruction and death wore on rescuers.
As the water receded, a crew found a car upside down and partially submerged in the creek. Flatwoods Police Officer Justin Stevens, helping in the search, stood on top of the car as they called for the jaws of life to tear it open and see if anyone had perished inside. But the car’s owner arrived just in time, and told the crew it had floated there, unoccupied, from her home a mile away.
“Thanks for not being in it,” said Stevens said. “We really didn’t want to see that.”
Seven cadaver dogs are aiding in the search, which stretches more than 8 miles from the town of Flat Gap south to Staffordsville — an area with 500 homes and 1,200 residents about 120 miles east of Lexington, police said at a news conference. Authorities estimate more than 150 homes were destroyed.
Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear declared a state of emergency, giving local officials immediate access to state resources to assist in recovery efforts. Lt. Gov. Crit Luallen toured the destruction Wednesday and called it “gut wrenching.”
“I think all of us who are here and who have seen this in person recognize this as a truly devastating natural disaster,” Luallen said. “People have lost everything.”
Families returned to the ruins of their homes to try to save what little they could. Church groups and others passed out sandwiches and water, neighbors banded together to clear heavy debris and police said they hoped there still might be some happy endings.
Johnson County Deputy Sheriff Terry Tussey spotted a Chihuahua, alone and trembling, pacing a pile of debris on the other side of a creek.
“She was dancing like she wanted to come across the creek but couldn’t do it,” he recalled. He trudged through the muck to find a safe crossing. Then he coaxed the little dog to him and cradled it back to his car. He drove around the afternoon with the tan dog in his lap, looking for its owner.
A shelter was opened at the Paintsville recreation center, though many displaced residents turned to families and friends. Many who lost everything said they felt lucky to be alive.
Robin Cisco sifted through the remnants of her daughter’s trailer, digging her grandson’s clothes and toys from the mud and rubble. The family barely got away: Her daughter ran from the trailer with her 18-month-old son as the storm hit and water started rising.
“They got out and they’re OK, that’s all we were worried about,” Cisco said. “All this other stuff can be replaced.”