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Flood rescuer repeats father's heroic actions

  • Story Highlights
  • Man enters flood to rescue woman, 30 years after father drowned saving others
  • Woman's car washes off I-20 in Georgia, 'in a blink of an eye,' she says
  • Co-workers hold rope while he goes in, trying to keep everyone calm
  • Thoughts of his father and the 'what ifs' stay with him
By Jessica Ravitz
CNN
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LITHIA SPRINGS, Georgia (CNN) -- As Zack Stephney stepped into the floodwaters last week, history washed over him.

Thirty years after his father drowned in a rescue attempt, Zack Stephney helped save a woman whose car sank.

Thirty years after his father drowned in a rescue attempt, Zack Stephney helped save a woman whose car sank.

The youngest of five children, he was only 8 when his father died.

For three decades, he'd carried with him mere snapshots of memories: Family time at Christmas. Riding on the back of Dad's motorcycle. Tommie Stephney's love for drag-racing.

But as the 37-year-old Douglasville, Georgia, man set out September 22 to try and save a woman whose car was swept away by rushing waters, he thought of his father's drowning. He, too, had fought to rescue people struggling against currents.

That was in 1979.

Tommie Stephney, a City of Atlanta employee, dove into the Chattahoochee River in Atlanta, Georgia, to save canoeists who'd flipped their boat, his son said. He safely brought two to shore. The third, he said, panicked -- forcing them both under. It would be a week before his father's body was found.

Dying in the massive floodwaters couldn't be Zack's fate. Certainly not this day. It was his mother Eva's 72nd birthday. Lord knows she didn't deserve news like that.

'All in a blink of an eye'

Melissa Brooks was heading east en route to Dunwoody, Georgia, for an important morning meeting with her boss. She doesn't know why, but it simply didn't register with the Douglasville woman that she was the only one traveling along that stretch of I-20. No signs or barriers told her she shouldn't be there. The water up ahead? It simply looked like a puddle, albeit a big one, the kind that would send a huge spray flying.

"I got halfway through it, and it took control of my car. It started taking me backwards -- all in a blink of an eye," she said Tuesday. "I knew I was in serious trouble."

The Atlanta-area terminal for Werner Enterprises, a large trucking company off I-20 on Blairs Bridge Road, was abuzz that morning. Floodwater from nearby Sweetwater Creek had taken over a large swathe of the property, worse than they had ever seen.

Nearly 30 mechanics had scrambled down to the lower lot to move about 100 semis, the water topping their tires. Some guys, including Stephney, a shop foreman who's been with Werner for nearly 19 years, looked out in wonder at the green space next to the lot, which had turned into a wide moving river.

When they first saw the silver Mazda coming through the trees from the interstate, they laughed, thinking it had been carried out of someone's driveway. But after it hit a submerged fence and spun around, they spotted Brooks, 40, frantically waving.

"My eyes zoomed in to see her fear," said Stephney. And as the car started to go under, he thought, "This woman is going to drown in front of us."

Taking charge

Brooks thought back to the movies she'd seen, kept the car running and hit the power button to lower the window before it was too late. She was a good swimmer, she knew that much, and with this knowledge -- and purse in hand, of course, she would recall with a laugh -- Brooks pushed herself into the torrent.

The current, however, was stronger than she was. It pulled her where it wanted. She grabbed on to what appeared to be a small tree.

"Hold on! Hold on!"

Brooks heard their voices and held herself together. She wasn't crying, but she was scared for her life. The tree branches began breaking.

Stephney had taken off running, back up to the parts room to grab a spool of 1,000-foot yellow nylon rope, the sort used to tie tarps over flatbeds. He threw on a fluorescent safety vest, so the men on shore could easily spot him in the filthy water.

Bigger men, including 265-pound Chris Mayfield, were ready to jump into the water. But Stephney, 100 pounds lighter, was laying out a plan in his head. Pulling him out would be easier, he told the men. Why make the job harder with a heavier man?

"He took charge like he'd done this a hundred times," Mayfield, 24, said.

Maybe it was his training in the U.S. Army Reserves after high school or his father's experience, but keeping everyone calm, warding off panic, was top of Stephney's mind. More than 25 men stationed themselves on two points around the water as he waded in, and fed out the rope tied around him.

He worked his way along the 6-foot-high, nearly submerged fence topped with barbed wire, struggling against the current to get close to Brooks, whose car had jumped the fence. The depth of the water worried him. Weeds tugged at his feet and legs.

"'What's your name?'" Brooks remembered him asking calmly, his eyes locked on hers. Then, he said, "'Melissa, everything's going to be OK.' And I believed him."

She called Stephney the "leader of the pack," and remembered him shouting to the others, "Guys, let's pull this together. If we don't pull this together, we're going to lose her."

On the other side of the fence was a stranger, Doug Weghorn. That morning, he'd been checking out the damage to his neighborhood when he came upon the mess abutting Werner Enterprises. Weghorn, 45, was now in the water as well. With a rope in his hand, unknowingly fed to him by Stephney's team, he snatched Brooks from the tree.

It wasn't until Stephney was out of the water that he knew, for certain, that he and Brooks had made it.

The 'what ifs'

The first call was to his wife, Leaquarius, the mother of his three children. She didn't believe him when he told her what had happened.

"I kid you not," he told her. "You want to smell me?"

He took a shower at work, scrubbed every inch of himself with a whole bottle of Clorox and joked that he was surprised his hair didn't turn white. He showered again, stepped into spare clothes and put in a full day on the job.

It would be at least a few hours before he could call his mother. He knew she might get upset.

A week later, the death toll in Georgia from the floods was 10. Standing along the fence still tangled with weeds and debris, Stephney peered down at Brooks' mucked-up car, knowing that number could have been higher.

"It could've happened to me the same way it did my dad," he said.

The "what ifs" keep spinning through his head:

What if her window hadn't been down?

What if they 'd never spotted her?

What if she'd failed to stay calm?

Mixed in are thoughts about his father, a man he in many ways struggles to remember.

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What Stephney did was not unlike the countless heroic efforts that played out in disaster areas during the flood. First responders and regular citizens risked their own lives to save others.

But he had something else pushing him, the kind of inspiration rooted in family legacy. And without a doubt, Tommie Stephney would have been proud of his boy.

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