Parents tell how family survived levee break

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Jerry Toops said a wall of water hit him like a "head-on collision."

ST. LOUIS -- Jerry Toops heard his wife scream his name in the dark. He awoke to hear a roar he could only describe as a calvacade of F-14 jets if combined with a fleet of trains.

When a reservoir at AmerenUE's Taum Sauk hydroelectric plant broke in Southeast Missouri on Dec. 14, the five members of the Toops family were caught up in about a billion gallons of water that swept away their home. Somehow, they all survived.

On Friday, Jerry and Lisa Toops recounted what they called a miracle during a news conference at SSM Cardinal Glennon Children's Hospital. One of their three children, 5-year-old Tanner, is still recovering there. The other children, 3-year-old Tara and 7-month-old Tucker, were released from the hospital Sunday.

The reservoir break happened in sparsely populated Reynolds County. The Toops home in Johnson's Shut-Ins State Park, where he was superintendent, was the only house destroyed.

'I knelt down and prayed'

Jerry Toops, 42, wanted to rescue his children and wife in those pre-dawn moments, but a wall of water hit him like a "head-on collision," in his bedroom. He estimated he swam upward through 20 or 30 feet of water until he reached the roof of his home. From there, he spotted no sign of his family.

"I knelt down and prayed. I prayed they would be all right," he said. He was swept away as the roof crumbled.

Lisa Toops, 38, had fallen asleep while feeding their youngest child on a couch around 4 a.m., and she heard the roar shortly before daybreak. "I yelled, 'Jerry, get the kids.'"

She grabbed the baby and rushed to Tanner's bedroom. They made it as far as the end of the bed before the frigid water arrived.

"It took all of 10 seconds to completely fill the room," Lisa Toops said. She told Tanner to hold his breath and to pray, "Jesus save us," as the water struck.

Outside of the house, Tanner was washed away while Lisa Toops kept the baby in her arms. She heard Tanner calling, "Mommy," located him, and managed to keep both boys near her until rescuers arrived.

Neither parent had time to reach Tara, who made it through the waters on her own, perhaps helped by doggy paddle lessons she'd gotten in a backyard wading pool.

Jerry Toops fought the waters by grabbing onto anything he could find, though trees and pieces of roof kept crumbling once he had gotten hold. He made his way into a tree and climbed down when he heard emergency responders, perhaps 90 minutes after the water first struck.

"If anybody lives, I want to be there for whoever lives," he prayed.

Suffering from hypothermia, he was given a coat and was receiving treatment in an ambulance as he saw something nearly unbelievable -- rescuers returning with the rest of his family.

"You know, I believe in miracles, and I believe this was one," he said, his voice breaking.

All three children were suffering from hypothermia as they were rushed to the hospital in St. Louis, 120 miles from their home. All were on respirators for a time. Tanner was upgraded earlier this week to fair condition. In addition to hypothermia, he was near cardiac arrest at one point and also needed skin grafts on his legs, after he was burned during the warming process shortly after his rescue.

"We're not going to blame anybody for those burns. We're lucky to have a boy," Jerry Toops said.

AmerenUE officials have said it appeared that the plant's automated instruments pumped too much water into the reservoir and caused it to rupture. A backup set of instruments should have recognized the problem but did not, the company has said. It has pledged to respond to needs in the flooded area.

Prior to the news conference, the Toops asked that they not be asked any questions about AmerenUE.

The family's community is rallying around them.

The town of Lesterville has about 200 residents, but on Thursday night twice as many showed up to attend a fund-raising dinner for the family, bringing in an estimated $4,400, said Jarad Falk, chief of staff for State Sen. Kevin Engler, R-Farmington, who helped organize the event.

The Toops family was planning to move soon because Jerry Toops had been promoted to assistant Ozarks district supervisor in Lebanon, Mo. The parents said they'd like some time to return near their home before they do that, allowing their children to see friends and return for a time to their preschool.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: