The Tree of Life: Finding shelter and faith in the South Llano River flood

Debbie's Tree of Life
Debbie’s Tree of Life

Reprinted from the October 18, 2018 Edition of The Canadian Record

“MY TREE.” That’s what Debbie Thomas calls the sheltering branches from which she, her dog Chaps, and friend Bobby Dillon spent five harrowing hours, watching the flood waters of the South Llano River swiftly rise.

The small camp trailer they had fled in the middle of the night was gone, swept away in the powerful torrent, along with Bobby’s Dodge pickup. But the tree still stood. From its precarious perch, they watched the camper jackknife in the roiling water, then turn on its side, still connected to the pickup.

“I kept telling Bobby, ‘We are going to make it,’” Debbie said. “He said, ‘If the tree holds, we will.’”

Debbie’s firsthand narrative of the hours that followed conveys the terrifying experience as they clung to that tree of life, hearing death’s powerful roar beneath them in the darkness.

CHAPS WAS THE FIRST to know that their idyllic camping trip, following a visit to Luckenbach, had come to an end. Around 4 am last Monday morning, the dog climbed into bed with Debbie. His feet were wet from the water that had begun to fill the trailer.

Opening the door, Debbie realized that what had been a campground along the river just hours early was now underwater. As they quickly evacuated the RV, Debbie grabbed the dog, her cellphone, and her purse.

Fighting the force of the rushing flood waters, they sought relative safety in a nearby tree. Both shoeless, they tried to scale the tree trunk to reach the lowest branches. “Climb or die,” Debbie remembered thinking.

“Bobbie gave me a push, and I made it,” she said. “He handed me Chaps, then he got up. I began praying…and hollering, ‘Help, help, help.’”

Temporarily safe from the raging and debris-filled waters, Debbie remembered having put her cellphone inside her shirt. “I reached for it, and it was still there,” she said. “I called 911, and they said they would get someone there.”

Emergency workers were barely visible on the bridge nearby. Debbie turned on her cellphone and began waving it, hoping they would see the light. Then she called her sons, Wayland and Dallie. “I told them we are in a flood up in a tree,” she said. “I told them I loved them, but we were going to make it.”

Her sons called officials in Junction and reported their mother’s plight. Wayland called back to say, “They know where you are,” and urged Debbie to save her phone battery.

As the water continued to rise, the stranded campers tried to climb higher in the branches, their feet slipping as they tried to find a foothold against the wet bark. When Debbie’s right foot became numb, Bobby rubbed it to restore feeling. When she grew cold and began to shake, he warmed her. “You Tarzan, me Jane, and Chaps, Cheetah,” Debbie joked.

“We saw big campers with the lights still on, motor homes, huge trees, limbs, parts of a cabin, barrels, all kinds of debris go by us like something you would see in a movie,” Debbie said. “People were screaming for help…it was the most horrifying—the most scared I’ve been in my whole life.”

Debbie Thomas, Bobby Dillon and Chaps
Debbie Thomas, Bobby Dillon and Chaps

Finally, a searchlight found them in the tree. Time passed. “Bobby started singing, ‘Don’t worry, be happy,’ and I joined in,” Debbie said.

Eventually, they saw two life jackets tied to a rope being maneuvered in their direction by emergency workers on the bridge. Bobby grabbed the rope and handed one jacket to Debbie, who was still holding Chaps. After donning the life jacket, Debbie relaxed a little. Bobby joked later that the life jackets would make it easier for rescuers to find their bodies if they fell.

The water was still rising. Moving at 30-40 miles an hour, the current had become too dangerous to navigate in a boat or raft. Time passed again…plenty of time to worry about whether the tree limb would break or the tree would become uprooted.

As the sky grew lighter, they heard the faint, but distinct, sound of a helicopter approaching. The spinning blades churned the water and frightened Chaps. “He was scrambling,” Debbie said, “and I thought, “My God, don’t let us fall now.’”

Texas Game Warden Cody Buckaloo descended from the aircraft on a cable, reaching Bobby first. Against Bobby’s protestations, Buckaloo insisted he would be the first lifted to safety. Before they took off, Debbie said, “Cody turned to me and said, ‘I will be back for you.’”

It seemed like forever. “I tried to stay calm,” she said. “I knew in my heart that the limb was getting weaker. I could feel it every time something hit the tree.”

But Cody returned, just as promised. He helped her slip the harness on, one arm at a time, as she held Chaps on one side, and then the other—then strapped it between her legs. “Do you have one for my dog?” Debbie asked. “He said no, I would have to hold him.”

Debbie locked her arms and legs around Chaps’ body, “like riding a bareback horse,” she said. Then Cody wrapped his legs around both of them, and they were lifted skyward. After taking one last look at the raging river below, Debbie closed her eyes.

THE NEXT THING she saw was someone in the helicopter reaching for her, pulling her inside, where Cody sat down alongside her. “I kissed him, and hugged him, and thanked and thanked and thanked him,” she said.

When they landed, a waiting ambulance took the evacuees to the hospital, where they were examined for any injuries, and given warm showers, warm blankets, hot chocolate, and food. “I gave Chaps my sandwich,” Debbie said, “and promised him a steak, later.”

Bobby’s son and daughter-in-law, and their son, were there waiting for them, with dry clothes and shoes, and transport back to their home in Carlsbad.

The remains of Bobby's pickup
The remains of Bobby’s pickup

At some point, Debbie took inventory. “I lost my camper and purse, and Bobby lost his pickup, but we have each other,” she thought. “We have no broken bones, no stitches; only light cuts, and scrapes and bruises. Blessed.”

“I don’t know how we held on and held my dog,” she said. “I think he had some dog angels with him, also.”

As she reflected on the experience later, Debbie offered a warning to others to be aware of what water can do and how fast and powerful it can be. “Never in a million years would I have dreamed I would be in this terrible situation, but Bobby’s smarts and heroic right decisions helped save us. I pray by writing this story, it might save someone else someday…”

“Please pray for all the ones that have lost loved ones,” she continued, “and for all of us to have strength to put this behind us. I was told I was a fighter, but God and His angels came to us through the storm. I’ve always believed in God, but it seems I never really talked to him like this until I really needed him.”

And about that tree. Debbie said, “After five hours in a tree, reaching and praising God, we are survivors. We survived the storm.”

“Please never cut down a tree,” she concluded. “It could save your life.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: In one final note of gratitude, Debbie expressed her thanks to God for Chaps, Bobby, Cody Buckaloo, and Micheal Van Winkle, “for being my heroes and saving my life.” Thanks, as well, she said, to the Texas DPS; Timmy Wright and Junction’s TxDOT office; Chief of Police Rudy Supak; the Kimble EMS and hospital, and their doctors and nurses and aides “for their excellent care and compassion.”

Photos provided by Debbie Thomas and by The Junction Eagle


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