Flooding is something that is timeless in our sleepy, small community. Luckily most of the time, it is what old timers call “a good ol’ ankle washer.” But once in awhile, the winding muddy Kickapoo River and surrounding waterways kick up their heels and raises one serious ruckus.
This was the case last Thursday morning, as the water swiftly rose. Residents had been watching their rain gauges in the days before, and driving down in a parade of onlookers to Robb Park in Gays Mills to check the status of the dam. On Wednesday night many, including this reporter, laid awake listening to the seemingly endless sound of downpouring rain.
At 3 a.m., rural Utica Township resident Jane Keeley set off down Johnstown Road to meet her friend in Soldiers Grove. The pair was planning on meeting in Soldiers Grove at 3:30 a.m. and going from there to catch a flight to Portland.
“It was torrential rain,” Keeley recalled. “It was so dark and raining so hard, when I turned onto County Trunk B I couldn’t see there was so much water on the road, in a place I would have never expected there to be water.” Tainter Creek had swelled far past its banks. The generally sleepy, beautiful trout stream had become a torrential force.
Keeley, less than a mile from her home, attempted to back out of the water in her Subaru station wagon.
“I tried to back out, but I was too far in,” Keeley said remembering the moment. “Water started taking me off the road, it was just terrifying.”
Keeley’s car came to a stop about 75 to 80 yards into the field estimated Crawford County Sheriff Dale McCullick.
Keeley immediately called 911 to get help. Following the 911 call, she called her friend to tell her she wasn’t going to make it for their flight after all.
“I spoke on the phone for awhile with my friend while I sat in my car, and then I said ‘oh no! water is coming in the car,’ and then it was, ‘oh no! There is water up to my knees’,” Keeley said. It was then that Keeley made the decision to climb out of her sunroof to the top of her car.
“The dispatcher called me back to help keep me calm,” Keeley said. “They were all very worried about me.”
Around 4 a.m., Soldiers Grove Assistant Fire Chief Ben Clason was in the village park warning campers of the situation and getting them to leave. That was when he got the call that a car was swept into a field with its passenger inside in rural Gays Mills.
“We were in the process of evacuating the park when I got the call,” Clason said. “The page went out for Gays Mills initially, but they were having trouble getting a crew together due to everyone being blocked because of the flooding. They called for assistance from Soldiers Grove, and as far as I know I’m the only one in the area with swift water rescue training so I went on the call.”
Clason acquired his Swift Water Rescue Certification Training in June of 2014 from the South West Wisconsin Tactical Rescue team (SWWTR) in Lancaster. The SWWTR was also on hand during the flooding, sleeping at the Occoch Mountain Rescue Squad building.
Time was of the essence for Clason, who received a call from the sheriff’s department informing him of a detour on County B, the quickest access to the site of the rushing water, just off of Johnstown Road by the former Swenson Auto Body.
“We had to go Freeman Road and drop down, which added an extra 20 minutes, and time was ticking, but it was the only way to get there,” Clason explained.
Luckily for Clason, there were eyes on the driver, Jane Keeley. Crawford County Sheriff’s Deputy Justin Fortney and his wife Rita, Keeley's neighbors, were right behind her when her car was swept out into the field.
“Justin and his wife stayed with me and kept an eye on me the whole time,” recalled a thankful Keeley.
The Crawford County Dispatch Center informed Clason that Keeley was able to get onto the roof of her car.
“They were keeping me informed, and as a swimmer it gave me the ability to mentally prep the best I could,” Clason said. “I knew it was going to be quite the adventure.”
Clason arrived on the scene and immediately got to work.
“I waded out to where I felt safe to come up with a game plan,” Clason said. Tying together long rescue rope, three quarter inch fire hose and all other rope they could find, Clason attached the lifeline, held by his fellow firefighters, to his vest and waded out.
“They were basically my lifeline, holding that rope,” Clason said. “I decided it was now or never, and in I went.”
Clason waded out into the water and quickly was swept up in the current.
“The current was too strong and pulling, it took about a tenth of a second to make the decision to release the lifeline,” Clason explained. “It was a really eerie moment, because once you detach yourself from that rope, there’s no turning back, or yelling for someone to pull you back in. Once that release is pulled, you’re swimming.” With out another thought or hesitation, Clason detached the one thing keeping him from flowing free in the wild waters of the Kickapoo River and he began swimming toward Jane.
“I made it to the car and the first thing I asked her was if she could swim,” Clason recalled. “She said she could and I pulled a rope from my vest and made a body harness to secure her to me, explained the strategy, and told her the current was going to be strong and it will sweep us down the creek, and wherever it takes us, it will take us.”
Keeley and Clason descended back into the cold milky waters of the displaced creek, hoping to reach dry land.
“She was in a bad situation to say the least, but you do what you got to do when you got to do it,” Clason said of the moment. “I’m not an Olympic swimmer or the best swimmer in the world, but I’m a swimmer, and that’s what matters at that moment.”
For Keeley, seeing Clason changed everything “I could see there were emergency vehicles, it felt like they were there forever,” Keeley recalled. “When I saw Ben I was so relieved and happy, I thought to myself, maybe I will get out alive.”
Once the pair was off of the roof they were immediately swept down the creek, swimming all the way “with her help swimming, we were able to reach the corn to stabilize us and then we were swimming as fast and as hard as we could and we finally got to where we could touch and began walking in about chest-deep water.”
Finally, after the harrowing time in the cold floodwaters, Clason and Keeley were safe on the road.
“She was in fairly good spirits for what she went through,” Clason said. “Thank God it worked out the way it did. She was in a bad situation and the only other way to get to her would have been a boat and time was ticking, if debris would have hit, or the car would have flipped things could have turned out a lot worse. It was one of those things, you don’t even really give it a thought, and you just do what needs to be done. If it was one of my family members out there, I would hope someone would do the same thing.”
Keeley seemed to echo thos feelings of thankfulness and relief.
“It truly was a relief, I was just so happy to be on dry land,” Keeley said. “I never thought something like that could happen.”
Keeley was placed in the ambulance and given warm blankets and comfort.
“Everyone was just so kind to me, Ben is a true hero, and don’t let him tell you any different!”
Clason expressed to the Independent-Scout that during the ordeal he saw a dozer in the field, with only about ten inches left exposed.
“All of the pieces of the puzzle fell together and that is something to be thankful for,” Clason said. “It looked like straight whitewater rapids, it was rushing.”
Clason expressed deep gratitude to the sheriff’s department for keeping the information coming to him before he arrived, allowing him to prep for the emergency situation ahead of him, as well as the other local rescue teams helping in this situation and the others that unfolded during the flooding.
“This would not have been possible without the assistance of the Crawford County Dispatcher, Sheriffs Department, and members from the Gays Mills Fire Department and Ocooch Mountain Rescue. And later, Country Gardens for donating food- keeping every one fed and energized, as well as everyone else that assisted in that situation,” Clason explained. “It’s not one person, it is a team effort that ultimately leads to a good outcome. I should have been in Soldiers Grove, not in the water, but I’m thankful that the other firefighters stayed back and did such a great job holding down the fort.”
After everyone was safe and sound, Clason was able to get word that Keeley was doing alright.
“When I talked to her on the hood of the car that was the first time we met, and after it all transpired and I asked how she was and found out she went with her husband and it was comforting to know that she was on her way to warming up and dry clothes.”
Crawford County Sheriff Dale McCullick shared Clason’s feelings for the work of their fellow public service members.
“I just can’t say enough about how good of a job all of the people down there did,” McCullick said. “It was a very dangerous situation and they all did a wonderful job. In fact, all of the people out there these past few days dealing with this have just been great. I can’t say enough good things about everyone helping out.”
Clason concluded his thoughts on the events that transpired in a humble way.
“We are fortunate to live in the community we do, so tight knit and close, it puts a smile on my face to see what, as a community, we can accomplish,” Clason said. “That’s what our world needs is for everyone to help out and be kind to each other.”