Penny McClure eyed the creek swelling up behind the Go Mart as she worked her shift on the morning of June 23. It didn’t seem ominous. Just an unpleasant, rainy day in West Virginia.
Customers streamed in for supplies. Nobody seemed too worried.
Then the rain sped up in the afternoon. The creeks churned faster and the sky grew dark — so dark that Robert Frank’s young daughter asked if she had fallen asleep and woken up at night.
McClure’s phone beeped with alert after alert from the National Weather Service. Thunderstorms, forecasters warned. Potential flash floods.
A few blocks away, Karol Dunford called her daughter and said she could see water rising up in the distance. She was alone, she said, and the power was out.
As they surveyed the sky in their town of 1,500 people that Thursday afternoon, they did not imagine that the rain would keep pouring down and the water would keep rising, that within hours it would turn their town into a lake and trap dozens whose screams would echo all night. By daybreak, at least 23 would be dead across the state.
Those who lived though it said it seemed to veer from relentless storm to catastrophe in an instant.
“It was nightmare. It was like the Titanic sinking,” said Terri Bowen, who would later stand on the edge of the water, looking out into darkness as her husband steered a kayak through the flood to save 18 neighbors clinging to branches and roofs.
Phil Hysell, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, described it as a “1-in-1,000-year” storm. Parts of Greenbrier County got more than 9 inches of rain in 36 hours.
The rain started in the county around 2 a.m. and was coming down at the rate of 2 inches an hour between 1 and 3 p.m. The National Weather Service, which had been warning for days that the water might rise, issued a dozen more flash-flood warnings Thursday. People started calling the sheriff, worried about the water.
“It was just like buckets of water falling out of the sky,” Sheriff Jan Cahill said.
At 2 p.m., a deputy sent him a photo of the town of White Sulphur Springs, on the opposite side of Greenbrier County from Rainelle.
“Streets had turned into raging rivers,” he recalled.
Around 3:30 p.m., Tracy Dowdy told her sister, Jennifer Stephens, that the floodwaters had lifted her car from her driveway in White Sulphur Springs and carried it away. She said water started pouring out of the furnace grates. A trout flopped up onto her porch. The water was up to her ankles. Five minutes later, it was up to her knees.
Dowdy sent her 8-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter up to the attic, then tried to get some food for them. By 3:45, the water rose to her waist and she couldn’t get the refrigerator open. She joined her kids in the attic. They prayed and watched from the window as the flood swallowed the front porch. They were trapped for five hours.
At 4:41 p.m., the National Weather Service sent out a rare flash-flood emergency warning, the sort of alert reserved for the most dangerous situations.
Ninety miles to the northwest, near the town of Clendenin, a woman trapped in her SUV called 911 at 4:28 p.m. as the water rose around her. Rescue teams were unable to get to her. The dispatcher heard screaming just before 5 p.m., and the line went dead. The woman’s body wasn’t found for another eight hours.
Greenbrier County, too, was quickly descending into chaos.
Dunford’s texted her daughter, Randee Suzer, at 6:30 p.m. to say both streets leading to town had flooded out.
Rescuers plucked people from stranded cars and second-story windows. The Rhema Christian Center in Lewisburg opened as a shelter around 7 p.m. and people poured in. Frank, a church emergency response team member, listened to the stories from refugees of what was lost: Their homes. Their cars. Their pets. Frank said a 15-year-old boy’s hands were cut to pieces after trying to grab his teenage sister and 7-year-old brother as water roared over them. He saved the boy, but his sister slipped away and remains missing.
Many outside the shelter would remain trapped in their houses into the night, wet, shivering and screaming.
Dunford’s texts to Suzer grew more desperate. Dunford, a 71-year-old in a wheelchair, sat with her four dogs crowded into her lap as the water crept into her trailer.
“Pray for me,” she wrote at 7:50 p.m.
She screamed and screamed, “Help me! Somebody save me!”
McClure, the Go Mart cashier, stood in her mother’s yard on high ground around 8:30 p.m. and could hear Dunford’s screams from the other side of the tree line. She called 911 over and over.
Her 7-year-old son cried. He said he wanted to turn into a water snake, swim over and carry the woman on his back to shore. She told him as long as the woman screamed, it meant she was still alive. She sang to him to drown out the screams as she tucked him into bed.
When she went back outside, she couldn’t hear the woman anymore.
“I thought she was gone and there was nothing I could do to help her,” McClure said. She cried herself to sleep.
A few blocks away, Stephanie Fox’s parents called and told her they’d decided to flee.
They got onto the porch, but there was only raging water in every direction. They climbed onto the porch banister, hoisted their Chihuahua up onto the roof and clung to the rafters. The water rose to their waists by the time they were rescued six hours later.
At 10:30 p.m., Robert Bowen and another man found a two-seat kayak, strapped an aluminum boat to the back and set off in the floodwaters to help rescue neighbors.
“We decided where to go based on the sound of people’s screams,” he said. “And they were screaming from everywhere.”
Bowen saved a blind woman and a disabled man. He opened a front door to find a body, said a prayer for the victim and headed out to find somebody who could still be saved. He could barely see through the dark and the fog and the leaking propane tanks floating by.
At Dunford’s trailer, the water rose to her shoulders.
“Are they in the wrong place looking for me?” she texted her daughter at 11:16 p.m.
“I’m freezing,” she wrote at 12:36 a.m.
One of the dogs, a Chihuahua named Frankie, fell off her lap into the water. She watched it drown and couldn’t stop it.
“They aren’t coming,” she decided at 12:39 a.m.
“I’m so tired,” she wrote at 1:42.
Two more hours passed.
The National Guard arrived for Dunford just before 4 a.m. and rescued her and the three dogs she had left.
The sun rose and the town woke up to see the devastation the flood left behind: houses ripped off their slabs, tree uprooted, roads collapsed. The death toll climbed from seven to 14 to 23.
McClure heard Friday morning that Dunford had made it out alive. She wrote her a message on Facebook and described listening to Dunford scream for hours, then fearing that the storm had swallowed her.
“I can’t help but feel like a part of me was with you.”