By Sofia Bledsoe, PEO AVNJune 17, 2011
REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala.--Just when one surmises that all the heroic stories have been told on the aftermath of the April storms that devastated many communities, a hero is discovered, rising beyond the call of duty and saves a life.
Dusk was setting. Few cars were on the road and provided the only lights in the city. The storms and tornadoes that had just passed through the night of April 27 wiped out Huntsville/Madison County’s electric grid. Melissa Wheeler, 28, had decided to go home after work instead of spending the night at a friend’s house. She knew she had to get home quickly.
Lt. Col. Jimmy Bowie was in the middle of transitioning from his old unit to the Army Materiel Command in the headquarters’ chief of Staff office. He had been a battalion commander for the 4th Battalion, 321st and during the week of the storms, was trying to close out in a big exercise. Soldiers from Georgia, Florida, South Carolina and Alabama had traveled to Redstone Arsenal for the exercise and arrived Tuesday of that week. By Wednesday afternoon after the power had gone out, attention had shifted from the exercise to feeding and caring for the Soldiers.
On a two-lane road in Harvest where she was detoured by police, Wheeler was making her way toward Toney where she lived with her parents. Then without warning, a flash flood swept the back end of her car and pushed her halfway off the road. The creek off of Monroe Road had overflowed. Water was rising fast, and Wheeler’s Ford Fusion had stalled. The phone lines were down, and there was no cell phone coverage. Wheeler could not reach anyone in her family. Trapped and helpless, she dialed 911, the only number that would go through.
With no phone coverage, Bowie had not been able to talk to his family either. He knew at least two of the storms had hit Toney where he also lived. After feeding the Soldiers, Bowie told his command sergeant major that he was going to check on his family and see how they fared and said he would be right back. It was around 7:30 p.m.
“I was in the driver’s seat which was filling up with water faster than the passenger seat,” said Wheeler, a management support specialist at the Aviation and Missile Research Development and Engineering Center. The 911 center had told her not to exit her car since it was dark and there was no way to tell how fast the water was moving.
“I had my flashers on and the batteries were dying. My phone was dying,” Wheeler said. She tried frantically to catch the attention of a few cars that were on the road that drove near the edge of the water.
“I saw a couple of cars come but then turned around,” she said. The night was getting darker and 911 was overloaded with emergency calls and dispatches. Wheeler tried to describe the road she was stranded in as best she could to the 911 dispatch. She was unfamiliar with the detour road and did not know its name. “911 couldn’t find me. They were busy. It was chaos,” she said. “I thought I was going to die.”
Bowie headed toward Toney when he left Redstone Arsenal. “I normally go up Pulaski Pike, but of course, it was blocked and so were many other places as I would find out later,” he said. Downed power lines, flooding, debris and trees led to detours at every road he knew to take. After an hour of driving, Bowie was getting a little frustrated and turned onto another road he had never taken before in Harvest.
“As I crested the hill and was coming down, there was a truck ahead of me that had stopped. The road ahead was obviously flooded, so the truck had turned around. I pulled up to the edge of the water and I was making the same judgment. The water was way too deep, moving way too fast, I’m not going to try it,” Bowie said. Even with a four-wheel-drive large truck, he decided it was not worth trying.
“I was getting ready to back up and turn around, and as I was doing so, my attention caught something just out in the middle of this,” Bowie said. In the back of his mind, he thought there was no way a car could have driven that far down the flooded road which was approximately 300 yards away. “I thought it was a marker on the road. It was so far away that I couldn’t tell what was out there,” he said.
Like many Soldiers trained in combat, he assessed the situation and instinct got the better of him. “I started easing out there and it kept getting deeper and deeper. As I neared the middle of the flooded road, I realized there was a car there.”
The water had risen to about a foot and half on his car door. It had been raining heavily and Bowie knew the water would only continue to rise and was flowing fast. “But then I realized there was somebody there in the car, and I just pressed on,” he said.
Wheeler was desperate and had almost given up hope that someone would find her. There was little chance any other car would pass through that late in the night when all the power was out. Then she saw a truck stop at the edge of the water line. This time, the driver of the truck kept moving forward toward her.
“The first time I saw her she was sitting on the door frame on the high side,” Bowie said. When he pulled the truck alongside Wheeler’s car, it created a wave. Bowie knew the best thing was to get Wheeler out of her dire predicament as quickly as possible. “What I didn’t want to do was to have two cars stranded in the middle of the flood,” he said.
Bowie turned on the lights inside the truck, and Wheeler could see that it was a Soldier. She knew instantly that she was sent an angel, and that Soldier would do everything he could to bring her home safely. Most of the men in her family had served in the military, and so she knew to trust a Soldier.
“Can your car start?” Bowie asked. “No,” Wheeler replied. “It’s dead.”
“Well then I’ll take you home,” Bowie replied.
Mike Courtemanche, Wheeler’s stepfather, a contractor for Logzone Inc. who works in the Fixed Wing Product Office in the Program Executive Office for Aviation, said he and his wife JoAnne had concluded that Wheeler stayed at either her friend’s house or her brother’s house that evening. Although she often spent the night at either house, the fact that they knew nothing of her situation made them to worry. “There was no way to reach her. Our community was in total communications blackout,” Courtemanche said.
Then around 11 p.m., Courtemanche saw car lights pulling away from the house. He caught a glimpse of Bowie and made out that he was a Soldier. He quickly got dressed but when he went to his daughter’s room Bowie was already gone.
Courtemanche searched for Bowie and found his email address. “If you are the person that got Melissa home,” he wrote, “thank you very much for the effort you put forth. I am sorry that I did not get a chance to thank you on the spot.”
“Lt. Col. Bowie does not think what he did was heroic, but it means so much to us that our daughter is alive and well because of his actions,” Courtemanche said. “It was a very, very frightening moment for Melissa. Words cannot express our gratitude to the colonel for risking his own life.”
The following morning, Wheeler and her parents drove to where her car was stranded and saw that the water had risen to almost 5 feet overnight. “My car was totaled,” said Wheeler, disappointed about the loss of her vehicle but so glad to be have been able to go home. Wheeler also discovered that Bowie did not live far from their house in Toney.
“I want to thank him for coming by, for following his instincts and getting me out of the car and taking me home,” Wheeler said. “I want to thank him for what he did for me and what he has done for our country.”
Bowie, now fully transitioned into AMC, said he didn’t think what he did was heroic.
“I’ve done three combat tours in Iraq, and I’ve seen heroic actions,” he said. “In this case, I don’t see it as being heroic. It’s just neighbors helping neighbors, and I’m just fortunate for her to be at the right place at the right time when I found her.”