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.
For the rest of the story on this daring rescue, please see the September 29th issue of the Crawford County Independent-Kickapoo Scout