Among the grateful victims that chopper pilot Joel Boyers managed to pick up during hurried evacuations in the path of catastrophic Tennessee flash floods were a young girl desperately clinging to a tree, and a soaked dog. These are just two of over a dozen individuals that the pilot managed to save that day.
Joel Boyers, who is a Nashville-based helicopter pilot and training instructor, had just finished up one of his classes with a student when a panicked and desperate phone call came through from a woman whose family was suffering through the enormous rushing floods around Waverly, Tennessee.
According to the caller, her brother had just left her a sad goodbye message because he and his two daughters were trapped on their rooftop and surrounded by churning, debris-filled water. They didn’t think they’d last much longer.
The woman asked if Joel Boyers could “please, please” fly into the town of Waverly and evacuate her loved ones from their rooftop. She pleaded with the pilot and instructor after having first Googled “Nashville Helicopters” and seen his company as one of the first results.
Boyers was hesitant. From where he stood could also see the brooding storm clouds swirling over Waverly off to the west of Nashville, and his answer to the woman made this clear.
He told her that, “Ma’am, no one will fly in this weather, and for good reason”. But the worried pilot wasn’t letting himself be daunted that easily, and apparently, this rapidly changed his mind. Before he’s even finished speaking his warning about flight conditions, Joel Boyers decided that he would indeed make the flight into Waverly despite the weather.
Decided, the co-owner of Nashville-based Helistar Aviation was ready to move.
According to Boyers, “I’ve got a daughter myself. I told her I’d take off and see what I can see”.
From there into Waverly in his helicopter, the skies were quite literally disastrous, with storm clouds, lightning, and rain causing low visibility amidst hills, high voltage power lines all along the 60-mile route between Nashville and the flooded town.
Joel claims that before reaching Waverly, he landed in a field to better calibrate his position before realizing that the internet was out on his phone anyhow. Without the GPS coordinates, he couldn’t even pinpoint the house he’d been asked to fly over in the first place. Despite this, he took off again and continued forward right into a maelstrom:
“As soon as I popped over the ridge, it was nothing but tan raging water below me. There were two houses that were on fire. There were cars in trees. There was tons of debris. Any way debris could get caught, it was. I knew no one was going to be able to swim in that”.
Because Boyers had lost cell phone and GPS service, he simply couldn’t find his intended rescue target and his two desperate daughters amidst the muddy sea of shifting water. However, what he did start quickly noting were many other people just as desperately stuck to their rooftops.
After that, he sprung into action, “I started picking off whoever I could in hopes that I’d find the original person” explained Boyers.
With this in mind, the Nashville pilot managed to rapidly extract a total of a dozen or more people, picking them up one at a time and carrying them to safety before returning for more.
In one of the rescue attempts, he noticed four people sitting on the edge of a farm supply store roof where he was able to land one of his skids. In three different trips, he picked up all four, among which was a woman who said she’d watched her husband get swept away by the water while she was being separated from their daughter, who’d gotten stuck on another roof.
Boyers dropped off the woman and then managed to also rescue the daughter.
Some of the people he’d picked up then offered to go back with him and help him pull more people out of danger, which inspired the pilot to continue.
After 90 minutes, Boyers ended his improvised but daring and mostly successful rescue mission. He was running out of fuel and could see professional emergency helicopter services entering the flood region.
According to Boyers, “Literally, it just felt like I was working. Obviously I tabled the feeling wrenching in everyone’s stomach because of the devastation”.
As for the father and two daughters he’d originally traveled to rescue, the woman who first called Boyers managed to let him know that they’d eventually been rescued by others.
The Sunday flooding in Waverly and the surrounding area has killed 20 people and destroyed 270 homes all told, along with numerous buildings, roads, cellphone towers, and other infrastructure according to the Humphreys County Emergency Management Agency. The floods suddenly raged their way across the landscape after rainfall that ended up being three times higher than what forecasts had predicted.
During unexpected catastrophic events and disasters of this type, emergency services rapidly respond by conducting helicopter tours of the region in question to see if they can pick up and evacuate any trapped victims. They also survey the damage and assess where to bring further relief supplies. These emergency response helicopters may come from regional rescue agencies, National Guard fleets, the military, or in many cases, from contracted private, professional helicopter charter services.