Survival story: FW firefighter, family swept away in flood

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by CHRIS HAWES and CASEY NORTON

WFAA

Posted on June 10, 2010 at 9:13 PM

Updated Saturday, Jun 12 at 8:22 PM

NEWS 8 EXCLUSIVE

ALEDO — A Fort Worth firefighter and his family are back home in Aledo after a wild ride on the rain-swollen Guadalupe River Wednesday nearly killed them.

RJ Forester, his wife Debbie and their 11-year-old daughter Sydney  were on vacation when a wall of water inundated their campsite and left them stranded — 30 miles apart.

The last time the Forester family saw each other, they were huddled in a truck bed as flood waters pulled them down the river.

"She was hanging on to the fifth wheel hitch; we're just floating, watching, seeing where the truck's going to go," RJ recalled. "It was hard to see in the dark."

Their eyes, however, made out what seemed like a miracle: a child-size life vest floating by.

"God put it there; I know He did," Debbie said.

"We tried to find her [Sydney's] life vest before we went in, but the wind already took it."

Mom, dad and daughter all stayed together until their truck sank — then the water began to pull them apart.

"We prayed," Debbie said.

"When the truck was going down, we prayed," RJ said. "Told everybody how much we loved each other."

"He dumped out of his tube and I couldn't find him; I didn't see him and I was yelling his name and I never saw him," Debbie said. "That's when they got separated."

RJ began an incredible and torturous 32-mile odyssey down the rampaging river by himself.

"Part of the way down there, I went through some real bad stuff," RJ said. "I went through some waves about 20-feet high — leading me up real high and dropping me down."

Sydney became separated from her parents and was also floating down the swollen river.

"I knew my dad tried his hardest, but when I left, like I said I was alone," she said.

RJ Forester was finally pulled out of the water by a boater in Sequin — 32 miles from the family's camp site.

He didn't know the fate of his wife and daughter.

Debbie grabbed onto a tree near New Braunfels.

Sydney went five miles further down river.

 

"If they went through this, there's no way they could have made it; if they got this far, I want to drown; I don't want to live," RJ said.

The Guadalupe River was inside the living room of Cathi and Craig Kneuper, but they stopped worrying about their own problems when they heard a girl screaming for help.

"I looked out of our window and I screamed, and I said, 'Oh my God, there's someone in the river!'" Cathi said.

Craig, who is a retired firefighter from Colorado, said adrenaline and training took over, and he jumped into the swirling waters to get Sydney.

"When I grabbed her, I told I wasn't going to let her go, and I said, 'Hang on, I am not letting you go.'" 

At the time, Craig had no idea he had just saved a fellow firefighter's daughter, but he started making calls, looking for her parents.

Once she calmed down, Sydney logged onto her Facebook account and pleaded with her friends to look for her mom and dad — still drifting on the river.

Finally, hours after they were pulled apart by the forces of nature, they all got the good news.

"When we talked on the phone, hearing each others' voices... it was so wonderful!" Debbie said.

It was an excruciating eight hour wait before they could all be together again for a big, long, family hug.

Debbie Forester said the whole ordeal was frightening, but added that they are thankful for all of their rescuers.

E-mail cnorton@wfaa.com and chawes@wfaa.com

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