Nashville-based helicopter pilot Joel Boyers had just finished helping his fiancé get her pilot’s license on Saturday morning, and they were on their way home to celebrate, when he received a panicked phone call from a woman in Pennsylvania. Her brother’s home in Waverly, Tennessee, was flooded and he was trapped on a roof with his daughters. Could Boyers Help?
“I thought, ‘How would I feel if I told her I’m not even going to try it?'” he said in an interview on Thursday. “She happened to call the right person because I’m the only person crazy enough to even try.”
The weather was terrible, and Boyers had to contend with hills and power lines on the way to Waverly, a small town about 60 miles (96 kilometers) west of Nashville. Just before reaching town, he sat down in a field to get his bearings and realized the internet was off, making it impossible to locate the house he was looking for. He flew on anyway.
“Once I got over the ridge it was nothing but brown swirling water below me,” he said. “Two houses were on fire. There were cars in trees. There were tons of rubble. Any way debris could be captured, it was. I knew no one could swim in it.”
A few people were in boats rescuing the stranded people, and one person helped with a jet ski, but Boyers was alone in the air. He started flying up and down the flooded creek, grabbing everyone he could.
Boyers, co-owner of Helistar Aviation, said he ended up saving 17 people that day. He’s proud of that, but said he should be the one who should thank them. “I literally prayed a few days before that God would give me some meaning in my life, and then I get this call,” he said.
He has flown over disasters before, including floods, but “the police are usually there and my hands are tied. This time there were none.”
Saturday’s floods killed 20 people, with homes, roads, cell towers and phone lines shut down, with rainfall more than tripling forecasts and shattering the state record for one-day rainfall. More than 270 homes were destroyed and 160 suffered major damage, according to the Humphreys County Emergency Management Agency.
To carry out the rescues, Boyers had to maneuver around power lines, balance his skids on sloped roofs and float above floodwaters. It took all the skills learned in 16 years of flying, including for a television news station, for documentaries and for country music stars.
“I don’t want to lie,” he said. “It was almost a bit of fun for me.”
It was also a powerful experience to go through with his fiancée, Melody Among, who acted as his co-pilot, noticing power lines, giving him sips of water, and sometimes even taking the controls. “She and I will be associated with those people for life,” he said.
At one point, he spotted four people on the ledge of a farm supply store roof, where he could put down one sled and make three different trips to pick them all up. One was a woman who said she saw her husband being swept away and separated from her daughter, who was on the roof of a nearby gas station. Boyers landed and also rescued the daughter.
The rescues of four of those people were captured on video by Jeani Rice-Cranford, who lives on a nearby hilltop and then helped shelter the victims in her home. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” Rice-Cranford said. “Not in real life.”
Record-breaking rainfall washed away homes and rural roads on Saturday.
Rice-Cranford and others had been standing by the side of the road for over two hours, watching helplessly and listening to the screams, when Boyers showed up. During the rescue, “there was a gust of wind and the helicopter shifted a bit,” Rice-Cranford said. “We all held our breath. We just watched with our mouths open, hoping and praying that he could get them.”
That rescue stands out in Among’s mind. They got the mother first, “then we got the daughter and they reunited on the floor,” she said. “They both hugged each other. It was very emotional.”
At another point, they saw a house rise, surrounded by flooding but not yet flooded. Boyers landed, picked up two men and saw a girl in the window who refused to come out. He flew out, dropped off one of the men and Among, and took the other man back to hoist the girl into the helicopter. When he landed again, he was able to rescue the girl and a woman who was with her.
‘I’m in a little hole with electricity cables everywhere. It takes an enormous amount of energy to take off vertically like that,” he said. So he left the man for a moment and then came back for him. “I kept doing that over and over until I ran out of fuel.”
The whole time he knew he really shouldn’t be doing this.
“Every landing was pretty dangerous,” he said. He has already discussed it with the Federal Aviation Administration.
“I know the FAA can take my license if they see me flying like this,” he said. He assured them that he had not charged anyone for the rescue, no one was injured, the helicopter was not damaged and there were no law enforcement helicopters in the area. After leaving Waverly, he stopped to refuel at an airport in the nearby town of Dickson and learned that the state police and National Guard still hadn’t flown in because of bad weather.
Boyers said he heard from the woman who originally called him in her desperate search for a helicopter somewhere near Waverly. She said her family was safe, but he doesn’t even know if he saved them or if someone else did.
Getting people out of the floodwaters isn’t the scariest thing he’s ever done, Boyers said. That should only fly through clouds on instruments, with some of those instruments out of order.
“Literally, it just felt like I was working,” he said. “Of course I have the feeling pricked in everyone’s stomach because of the devastation.”