January-February 2010 | Features

Rescue on River Road

A flood rises out of nowhere, and nine people find themselves swept up in a drama they could never have imagined.

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The Tuesday before Christmas 2008 dawned clear, quiet and cold. The weather forecast called for light winds and temperatures in the teens. Traffic was unusually light. It seemed people were taking advantage of the short week, wrapping up their business along with their presents, and leaving town early. Bialis Roque was at the wheel of her 2000 black Honda Accord, driving to Norwood School in Bethesda, where she was a custodian. She was listening to loud music, as she usually did on the commute from her home in Gaithersburg. Normally at this time of year she’d be doing the drive in the dark—her shift started at 6:30 a.m. But the private K-8 school was closed for the holidays, and her boss had told everyone to sleep in. So it was nearly 8 when she turned off the Beltway and headed north on River Road.

Her colleagues had just phoned, telling her to hurry: They were putting the coffee on. She was bringing the bread, freshly baked and still warm on the front seat beside her. “Bialis, we are all waiting for you!” she remembers them saying. “Drive fast!” With nothing more pressing than breakfast on her mind, she crossed the low bridge over Cabin John Creek and started up the long hill before the turnoff to the school.

Halfway up, she braked. There were cars parked in the road, at odd angles, seemingly at random. She looked around, puzzled. Then she saw the water, a wall as high as her car, rolling down the road, boiling with branches and boulders and mud.

“I didn’t have a chance to do a U-turn,” she says. “I try, but I couldn’t.” She sat helpless in the driver’s seat as the water rolled over the cars farther up the hill. The force of the water, when it hit, sent her sliding downhill. There was a jolt as her Honda struck a Subaru Outback that had been coming up the hill behind her. Carried by the current, the Honda continued backward, shuddering to a stop just behind the Subaru. The water kept coming.

Bialis Roque, who was 20, had emigrated from El Salvador with her family 10 years before. She had been working at Norwood for two years and had finally saved enough money to buy a car. She had bought the Accord just three months earlier. “It was my first car,” she says, sounding wistful in a recent interview at the school. “I bought it from this person, he never used it. It was in very good condition. And it had low mileage.”

Her initial response to the surreal turn her morning had taken was hardly a response at all. She sat, turning it over in her mind: She was in her car on a major thoroughfare she drove nearly every day; she was in the middle of a river that had appeared from nowhere and was pouring around her like Great Falls in spring flood. There was the creek at the bottom of the hill: Had it flooded? “I couldn’t think,” she says. “I couldn’t think of anything.” The water closed around her like a brown curtain; she couldn’t see out her car windows; the only sound was a terrible roaring in her ears. Then the fear hit. She reached for her cell phone and dialed 911.

The first thing the operator heard, when the call went through, was Bialis Roque’s voice rising into a scream for help. It was 7:57 a.m.

Hers was one of many calls made to 911 from River Road that cold Dec. 23rd  morning one year ago. An explosive break in one of Montgomery County’s largest water mains had turned the steeply graded, wooded stretch of heavily traveled road into an icy cataract rivaling the most challenging kayaking chutes at Great Falls a few miles west. Fire and rescue, police and emergency services from both sides of the Potomac River rushed to the aid of nine motorists trapped in the floodwaters. Because it was the morning rush hour, less than a mile from the Beltway with its hovering traffic helicopters and roving news crews, millions watched on television as it happened.

Three minutes before Bialis Roque’s call to 911, a calmer caller had phoned. He stumbled slightly, responding to the operator’s opening question—“Montgomery County 911. Do you need police, fire or ambulance?” He said, “I need rescue. I need, uh, water rescue, at River Road,” and then described the scene before him. River Road, he said, “is completely washed out…. You now have at least three or four vehicles that are being washed down River Road toward 495…with people trapped.”

Bialis Roque’s Honda was midway up the hill. Immediately in front of her was the Subaru, containing Dan Li and her 9-year-old son, Sean  Cody. There were two cars farther uphill, similarly engulfed, and three more behind—seven cars, holding nine stranded motorists and passengers (an eighth car, on Carderock Springs Drive at the bottom of the hill, had been abandoned by its driver, a high school student who had waded out of the waist-deep water and gotten a ride home). Also on the scene, by some benevolent twist of fate, was Cabin John Park Volunteer Fire Department’s Engine 710. Its crew included trained members of the county’s Swift Water (River) Rescue and Tactical Services Team (known as RRATS). Based at Cabin John Station 10, a half mile south on River Road, they had just set out on what they had expected to be a quick trip to the bank and the grocery store to buy food for lunch and dinner.

Firefighter Anthony Bell was driving. “Everybody was in the Christmas mood,” he recalls. “We were planning on having a quiet day.”

They had gotten as far as the bridge over Cabin John Creek when they noticed what looked like smoke rising in a cloud at the top of the hill.

Bell’s lieutenant, Bill Phelps, told him to slow down. “I think something’s on fire,” he said. Their first thought was that there had been an accident, a head-on collision, a truck fire or perhaps a hazardous materials spill.

Bell thought it was steam. “This big steam cloud rising into the sky. Radiator steam. Either way, it had to be a crash,” he recalls, picturing that strange scene nearly a year later. “And then, all of a sudden, we saw this big wall of brown water come rolling down the road, 4 feet high. The water was raging; it was just rolling…. And there were all these cars. This wall of water was rushing down on them. I saw water coming over the top of a car, and that’s when I put on the brakes.”

Bell turned and said, “This isn’t right, Bill,” and Phelps nodded, thinking to himself, “Wow, this is the beginning of a very, very bad day.” They were about a quarter of the way up the hill when the water exploded over them. It sounded, Phelps said later, like a jet engine. “Back, back!” he ordered. “Back it up!” As Bell reversed the big engine back to the bottom of the hill, Phelps got on the radio. It took a second or two for those on the receiving end to register what he was saying. “You say you’re on the scene of a water rescue?” was one initial response.