A helicopter pilot who had just helped his fiancee to earn her pilot’s licence has spoken of his daring rescue of 17 people stranded on rooftops by rising floodwaters in Tennessee.
Nashville-based Joel Boyers said he had prayed for God to show him his life had meaning just days before the phone call came from a desperate woman looking for someone to help her brother and his family who were stranded on a rooftop in Waverly.
Piloting the only helicopter in the sky in the area at the time, Mr Boyers manoeuvred around power lines, balanced his skids on sloped rooftops, and hovered over floodwaters to rescue 17 people in total.
Speaking about Saturday’s incident in an interview with the Associated Press, Mr Boyers said it felt great to use his skills for something so important.
He says he has received lots of thanks from the people he helped, but also acknowledged their role in helping him.
The weather was terrible and Boyers had to contend with hills and high-voltage power lines on the way to Waverly, a small city about 60 miles west of Nashville.
Just before reaching the town, he set down in a field to get his bearings and realised the internet was down, making it impossible to pinpoint the house he was looking for. He flew on anyway.
“As soon as I popped over the ridge, it was nothing but tan raging water below me,” he said.
“There were two houses that were on fire. There were cars in trees. There was tonnes of debris. Any way debris could get caught, it was. I knew no-one was going to be able to swim in that.”
A few people were out in boats, rescuing the stranded, and one person was helping with a jet ski, but Mr Boyers was alone in the sky. He started flying up and down the flooded creek, grabbing anyone he could.
The pilot, who co-owns Helistar Aviation, said he ended up rescuing 17 people that day.
He’s proud of that, but said he’s the one who should be thanking them. “I literally prayed just days before this that God would give me some meaning in my life, and then I end up getting this call,” he said.
He has flown over disasters, including floods, before, but “the cops are usually there, and my hands are tied. This time there weren’t any”.
Saturday’s flooding killed 20 people, taking out houses, roads, mobile phone towers and telephone lines, with rainfall that more than tripled forecasts and shattered the state record for one-day rainfall.
More than 270 homes were destroyed and 160 took major damage, according to the Humphreys County Emergency Management Agency.
Mr Boyers used all the skills learned over 16 years flying, including for a television news station, documentary-makers and for country music stars, in order to carry out the rescue.
“I don’t want to lie,” he said. “It was almost a little fun for me.”
It was also a powerful experience to go through with his fiancee, Melody Among, who acted as his co-pilot, spotting power lines, giving him sips of water and even taking the controls at times.
“Her and I will be bonded to those people for life,” he said.
The rescues of four of those people were caught on video by Jeani Rice-Cranford, who lives on a nearby hilltop and helped shelter the victims in her home afterward. “I’ve never seen anything like that,” Ms Rice-Cranford said. “Not in real life.”
Ms Rice-Cranford and others had been lined up along the roadside — helplessly watching and listening to the screams – for more than two hours when Boyers showed up. During the rescue “there was a gust of wind, and the helicopter kind of shifted,” she said.
“We all just held our breath. We were just watching with our mouths open, hoping and praying that he would be able to get them.”