Alone in the sky, the pilot and his fiancée save 17 in a flood in Tennessee

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Nashville-based helicopter pilot Joel Boyers had just finished helping his fiancee get her pilot’s license on Saturday morning, and they were on their way home to celebrate, when he got a frantic call from a woman in Pennsylvania. His brother’s house in Waverly, Tennessee was underwater and he was trapped on a roof with his daughters. Could Boyers help?

“I was like, ‘How would I feel if I told him I’m not even going to try?’” He said in an interview on Thursday. “She just called the right person, because I’m the only person crazy enough to even try to do that.”

The weather was terrible, and Boyers faced rolling hills and high-voltage power lines on Waverly Road, a small town about 60 miles west of Nashville. Just before reaching town, he sat in a field to get his bearings and realized that the internet was down, making it impossible to locate the house he was looking for. He flew anyway.

“As soon as I jumped over the ridge it was nothing but tanned, raging water below me,” he said. “There were two houses that were on fire. There were cars in the trees. There was tons of debris. Either way, the debris could be caught, it was. I knew no one would be able to swim in it.

A few people had gone out in boats to rescue the stranded, and one person was helping with a jet ski, but Boyers was alone in the sky. He started flying up and down the flooded creek, grabbing everyone he could.

Boyers, co-owner of Helistar Aviation, said he ultimately saved 17 people that day. He is proud of them, but says he is the one who should thank them. “I literally prayed a few days before that that God would give me meaning in my life, and then I ended up receiving this call,” he said.

He’s been flying over disasters, including floods, but “the cops are usually there and my hands are tied. This time there was none.

Saturday’s flooding killed 20 people, sweeping away homes, roads, cell towers and phone lines, with rainfall more than tripling forecasts and shattering the state’s record for one-hour rainfall. daytime. More than 270 homes were destroyed and 160 sustained significant damage, according to the Humphreys County Emergency Management Agency.

To carry out the rescues, Boyers had to maneuver around power lines, balance his skates on sloping roofs and fly over floodwaters. It took all the skills learned in 16 years of flying, including working for a TV news channel, documentaries, and country music stars.

“I don’t want to lie,” he said. “It was almost a little fun for me.”

It was also a powerful experience to have with his fiancée, Melody Among, who acted as his co-pilot, spotting power lines, giving him sips of water and even sometimes taking the controls. “She and I will be bonded to these people for life,” he said.

At one point, he spotted four people on the roof ledge of a farm supply store where he was able to drop a skate, making three different trips to pick them up all. One was a woman who said she saw her husband get taken away and separated from her daughter, who was on the roof of a nearby gas station. Boyers landed and saved the girl as well.

The rescues of four of those people were filmed by Jeani Rice-Cranford, who lives on top of a nearby hill and helped shelter the victims in her home afterwards. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” Rice-Cranford said. “Not in real life.”

Rice-Cranford and others had been lined up along the road – watching and listening helplessly 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 moved,” Rice-Cranford said. “We all held our breath. We just watched with our mouths open, hoping and praying that he could get them. “

This rescue stands out in the mind of Among. They had the mother first, “then we had the daughter and they got together in the field,” she said. “They were both kissing. It was very moving. “

At another location, they saw a house on a hill, surrounded by floodwaters but not yet submerged. Boyers landed, picking up two men and saw a girl through the window who refused to come out. He flew off, dropped one of the men and Amongst, and brought the other man back with him to hoist the girl into the helicopter. When he landed again, he was able to save the girl and a woman who was with her.

“I’m in a little hole with power lines all around. It takes enormous energy to take off vertically like that, ”he said. So he left the man briefly and then came back for him. “I kept doing it over and over until I ran out of fuel.”

All the time, he knew he really wasn’t supposed to do all of this.

“Every landing was pretty dangerous,” he said. He has already had a conversation with the Federal Aviation Administration about this.

“I know the FAA can take my license away if they see me flying like this,” he said. He assured them that he did not charge anyone for the rescue, that no one was injured, that the helicopter was not damaged and that there were no law enforcement helicopters. In the region. After leaving Waverly, he stopped at an airport in the nearby town of Dickson to refuel and learned that State Police and National Guard still had not arrived by plane due to inclement weather. .

Boyers said he overheard the woman who originally called him in his desperate search for a helicopter anywhere near Waverly. She said her family were safe, but he doesn’t even know if he saved them or if someone else did.

Pulling people out of the floodwaters isn’t the scariest thing he’s ever done, Boyers said. It would have to fly through the clouds with instruments only, with some of those instruments broken down.

“Literally, I felt like I was working,” he said. “Obviously I put the heartbreaking feeling in everyone’s stomach because of the devastation.”

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