Last night, my photographer and I were covering an area of town that was badly flooded. It was so flooded that it took 3 hours just to get there. After doing our report at 6:30pm, we left for the road, knowing we had to make it before the sun went down, because we had to cross roads with 1-3 ft of water and main highways were flooded. Our GPS took us to so many country roads that were not passable. After trying 3 different routes, the sun went down. We found ourselves on the path that took us there, which was passable in the morning but was not near any hotel, gas station or homes. We had no choice but to keep on the path with hopes that it would be the same as when we came.
Our car drove through miles of water - eventually it got deeper and deeper, but our car held on. We then felt a current ... I had rolled down my window ... Our car was floating and was beginning to fill with water. As I'm thinking about how we're in the middle of nowhere, and the car was sinking. I panicked. I grabbed my identification and wallet ... my waist was sinking in water and I was sinking with the car. I managed to straddle the window ledge - I hear a man's voice in the distance saying to his family, 'I'm not going to leave knowing there are these two people here." As the car was sinking, I tried to bring my other leg out, but the water outside the car was pulling me back in the car. I was holding on to my laptop bag, which had my phones. This man said, "you're going to have to let it go." He then grabbed my arm and pulled me out of the car.
We swam to a chunk of concrete - what was once the top of the bridge--surrounded by water. As the hour went by... the water crept higher and higher. I called 911, but they had no idea when they could come. I had no idea how they would find us. The man who helped save me had a pick up truck that was stuck on the concrete because it was surrounded by the high water. He was with his family. The family included six 6 people and animals including a pregnant woman, a baby, a parrot and a dog. They lived in the rural areas of town and were evacuating their homes because they were running out of food.
I thought we were going to die on that slab of concrete. The concrete we were on would not be dry by the morning. We would all be swimming for our lives in the dark for miles until we hit dry road. I had done reports about how first responders couldn't come to people's rescue because they couldn't get to where they were. Many rescues had to wait until the morning. I called 911.
"I don't think we can wait until the morning. We will all be underwater by then." The dispatcher said she did not know when rescue could come, but that they were going as fast as they could.
The driver (the father of the man who saved me), wanted to leave. My photographer said, "Let's hop in the back of their truck. It may be tall enough to make it through."
Uncertain of how much further and deeper the road would go, we took a leap of faith and we climbed in the the open trunk of the pick up truck. This sweet woman gave me her blanket. Sopping wet in the back of this family's truck, we were at least 2.5 hours from Houston at this point--on flooded country roads in pitch black darkness. I-10, the major highway, was closed because it was under water, so there was no known path back to Houston.
The driver with the parrot said, "Don't worry. I've driven this truck through so much shit. I'll get us out of here."
It was a moment of relief. I believed in this stranger who, for some reason, was determined to help us and save all of us from the flood waters, despite his own lack of resources.
The first mile or so, I watched nervously as the truck made its way through the same water that devoured our news van. I said prayers that this truck wouldn't sink or tip over. My photographer said, "We will be okay," as he wrapped the blanket the kind woman gave me around my shoulders. Staring at the beautiful country sky, we sat, soaked in water on the back of a stranger's pick up truck, enjoying the simple moment knowing that we were alive, together and hopefully on our way home.
We made it through the tough water. The man stops his truck and asks if we were okay. We were running out of fuel. We stopped in a place where cars are stopped. People with boats attached to their trucks told us that the way they came is flooded. The man driving our truck said, "the way we came is flooded too."
The strangers we met saw my photographer and I and offered blankets. Next thing I know, those same strangers gave the baby milk and fuel.
"Good luck. Be safe," said the stranger who gave us fuel.
"Make sure you get as much diesel as you can before you get to where we came. They are all out," said the sweet woman who gave me the blanket to the man who gave us his own fuel.
These families were angels.
Eventually we stopped at a pit stop. I was overjoyed that we had made it back to what seemed to be civilization. While stopped, I heard that the family was hungry.
"I wanted an icee, but it cost two dollars," said the woman who was pregnant.
"I'll pay you back," said another family member to the driver.
My heart broke. I offered to pay for all their food and handed them my card and asked them to full tank it. They laughed, didn't accept my money, but took the money for gas.
"I have to get my family and the baby situated, then I'll bring you guys wherever you need to go," said the driver.
"That's alright," said the photographer.
"I have no idea how to get there, but I'm just trying any way to get us out," said the driver.
I felt bad. We were out of this family's way, his pregnant relative was uncomfortable, but he still wanted to help.
For another hour and a half, my photographer and I huddled in the back of the pick up truck as the winds pick up on the major highway. I laid there, staring at the streetlight, shivering under a blanket. The empty highway, the wind, the streetlights - were eerily beautiful. I had never done this in my life.
"We're going 75 mph in the back of this truck, and yet, we're still safer than when we were in our news van," he laughed.
"This is one of the craziest things to ever happen to me on the job," I laughed.
"This is not even on my top 10," said the photog, who had decades in the business. He put his hand on my head and bowed his own head for a while in silence.
"Amen," he said.
"Amen," I said. I was praying silently with him.
"I'll never forget this," I laughed.
"This is good bonding," he laughed.
"I guess this means, we'll have to be friends for life."
I meant it.
"Yeah, I'll have to keep up with you after I get fired for sinking our truck and losing our equipment," he laughed.
The longer we were on the road, the more hopeful I felt. We were still at least an hour away, but I was happy. Not thinking of the camera, laptops, tripod or equipment we lost, I was happy that it was pure humanity that had saved us. By the grace of God these people had stopped. By the grace of God, we got fuel from strangers. By the grace of God, I thought, we may be on our way home.
All the stories I told of communities coming together, couldn't have felt more true at that moment. With Hurricane Harvey, it never mattered who you were or where you came from. I cried.
The photographer told me stories of the situations that beat this one--the time he was kidnapped by gunpoint, handcuffed, blindfolded and thrown in the back of a car for 2 hrs, all for security for an exclusive interview with someone important. Or, the time he was the chief investigative photographer and he had tracked down a serial killer in the Philippines. I was in awe of how much emotional stress he could take.
Distracted by city lights, I was never so happy to eventually see the skyline of a city that once felt like a strange place. The Houston skyline, now felt so familiar and so comforting.
We made it to the station... I got out of the car. I looked at the man who grabbed me from the car. I handed him a damp $100 that I happened to put in my wallet, which I managed to save. Having that cash in there was a completely unusual thing. I knew that money was meant for them. God answered my prayers, and I was hoping that this would perhaps answer theirs.
"Buy food and gas for your family," I said. "Please be safe."
I gave them all the cash I had on me.
He silently took the money and smiled. His name is Brock.
"Thank you for saving my life," I said to each one of them.
We then parted ways in the station parking lot. I told them I would never forget this moment. They solidified that in times where things seem dark and hopeless (like many people surviving Harvey), the real story is the hope in humanity and the goodness of people that will carry us through. We were lucky. I promised myself that I would pay it forward.
I never knew if I'd see them again, but I was sure happy to know them.
Roe Aragon is a founding member of UniPro Chicago-Midwest. She has recently re-located to Houston, Texas, where she works as a journalist for KPRC-TV Channel 2 News (NBC).
Read UniPro Texas' statement in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey here.