For generations, the Whatleys have escaped to the mountains of rural Western Arkansas.
Terry Whatley, 50, has been camping at the Albert Pike Recreation Center since he was a child.
Spending a week along the banks of the Little Missouri river is a tradition he’s been sharing with his two sons since they were young.
But on Friday morning, the river rose in a way he had never seen before.
Around 3:30 a.m., Whatley awoke to pounding on his camper door.
“When I opened the door, the water was six inches high and he said ‘The river's rising!’ I didn't know what the water was going to do. You could see it was coming up,” Whatley said.
Within seconds, he said, the water rose above his waist — swamping his truck.
Whatley, a Garland High School golf coach, tried to get his mother, Hertha Whatley, 74, to higher ground.
“Not until the water hit my body did I realize we were in some kind of trouble,” he said.
Meanwhile — across the river — his younger son, Matt, 24, had been awake watching the storm. “I was telling my best friend it’s time to get out,” he said.
As the water overwhelmed cabins, Matt began trying to wake people up.
“We just started sprinting cabin-to-cabin, any vehicles there, any lights on,” he said. “We were just banging on doors and getting people out of there, because that water was coming so fast up.”
He estimates he got 15 people out.
However, the water proved too strong for his father and grandmother. The river swept them into a car pinned against a tree.
“When my feet left me, I was already thinking to myself, ‘this is going to be a bad way to go,’” he recalled. “I told my mother, ‘You're going to have to trust me, mom… I'm not going to let you go.’”
Clinging to each other, Whatley’s older son, Chris, 27, rushed into the water and was able to get his father and grandmother to higher ground.
“I just had no other decision,” he said. “I didn’t even think about it; I just went.”
Earlier, as the waters swirled around him, Chris paused to put on tennis shoes — a fateful decision, his father feels, that likely saved their lives.
“I had my Crocs on, and I could hardly walk,” said the elder Whatley. “With his tennis shoes on, he was able to keep his footing on the ground.”
With everyone safe, rescue crews eventually took Hertha Whatley to the hospital, but everyone in the family survived.
However, three close friends in their camping group drowned.
Kay Roeder, 69, along with her stepson Bruce Roeder, 51, and his wife Debbie, 52, were swept away. The family is from Luling, Louisiana.
Rescue crews found their bodies the next morning.
“We've camped with these people all our lives,” Terry Whatley said. “It’s hard to look back and see my friends gone. I just feel God had his hand around my family and those with me… I just think some of the others did not have a chance.”
On Sunday, as the search went from rescue to recovery, 19 people had been confirmed killed in the pre-dawn Friday flood. Searchers recovered one body Sunday in a debris pile, and State Police Capt. Mike Fletcher said that one person remained missing.
On Saturday afternoon, the Whatleys returned to the site to salvage items. The flood destroyed nearly everything, including their five cars and a recreational vehicle.
They were able to salvage a mud-filled duffel bag, a fishing pole, and a cushion Kay Roeder had made.
Whatley hopes to fly to New Orleans this week to return the cushion to her family.
“I'm a blessed man,” he said. “I'm a husband that can look over there right now and see my wife and two sons, and yet I've got some very good friends that can't say that.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.