Those killed in Comfort tragedy remembered, as others can't forget

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by JOHN McCAA

Bio | Email | Follow: @johnmccaa

WFAA

Posted on May 4, 2012 at 11:39 PM

COMFORT, Texas - While our lives may be separate, some events we share - good things, like the Mavericks victory last year, and tragedies, such as 9/11.

Twenty-five years ago, a Texas tragedy gripped us all.

It involved students most of us never knew, fleeing a church camp most of us never heard of, the Pot O' Gold Ranch. It was just outside a small town with the now ironic name of Comfort, which sits along the Guadalupe River.

In July 1987, massive flooding sent the river out of its banks. It can flood a lot in Central Texas, so at first, no one thought the rain was that unusual.

David Villarreal was working for KENS-TV in San Antonio. He was sent via helicopter to cover any flooding.

"Nothing really spectacular," he recalled. "Lightening, thunder, heavy run -- just a typical Texas downpour."

However, upriver, 11 inches of rain had fallen. The Guadalupe was swelling rapidly, and teenagers from a North Texas church were desperately tried to get out.

Gene Marsh, just 14 at the time, was one of them. He remembers the early morning hours well.

"They come in, woke us all up, [and] told us we needed to get ready to move," Marsh said. "The river was overflowing."

He was one of more than 40 campers from Balch Spring's Seagoville Baptist Church who were warned to get out fast. The water was moving so quickly, no boats could reach them, leaving only vans and buses.

As they made their escape from the Pot O’ God Ranch, a wall of water struck a bus and a van sending more than 40 campers into the Guadalupe.

Gene was in one of the vans and remembers it all.

"We watched the bus in front of us," he said. "While kids were getting out, it seemed like... that bus was gone within a matter of minutes."

Just as quickly, his van stalled and Gene was in the water.

“We was underwater by the time we was getting out [and] couldn't back up," he said.

With his head back above water, Gene clutched on to a branch.

As they scrambled up trees to get out of the current, Gene grabbed an eight-year-old girl as she was swept by him.

"She was the youngest one on the bus with us, and I was able to grab her, and got her on my back and I carried her with me up a tree," he said.

With 40 kids in the water, every available helicopter went into rescue mode. Helicopters for the Kendall County Sheriff's Department, the Department of Public Safety, even David Villarreal’s news chopper, nearly out of fuel.    

At that moment, below his helicopter, David spotted camper Melanie Finley struggling against the current.

They threw her a rope, but the floodwater kept pushing it out of her reach. A volunteer firefighter on the helicopter jumped in, but couldn't quite grasp her because the water was too strong.

Again and again they tried and failed, before they were finally forced to break off to refuel.

Another chopper moved in to take its place, but Melanie Finley could not be saved.

It took hours to get the kids out. Gene had a broken rib, and lost all his fingernails clinging to trees.

The next day, they found the van and bus down river; a twisted testament to nature's power.

Here and there among the debris were the bodies of 10 treasured children, gone on to glory.

Twenty-five years later, those life saving trees are still there. Beneath their canopy, the Guadalupe has returned to a soft stream.

David Villarreal comes back often to look at the monument marking the tragedy, and remember Melanie Finley. Gene Marsh hasn't forgotten, either.

He has a new life now. A loving wife, growing family, and a story to tell about the lesson he learned from the Guadalupe.

The body of one of the young men in the Comfort flood, John Clinton Bankston, has still not been found.

He was last seen pulling others to safety.

That explains the scripture on his grave marker: John 15:13: "Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends."

E-mail jmccaa@wfaa.com

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