John Wienges could have left Columbia the night of the flood, but instead he saved the lives of several other Gills Creek residents in his neighbor’s canoe while his own house went underwater.
By Lia Grabowski
Dec. 10, 2015
The night before the impending flood, John Wienges could have accepted his brother’s offer to watch the Notre Dame football game in St. Matthews. He could have gone to bed instead of staying up all night to monitor the rising waters.
Instead, his vigilance and a borrowed canoe saved the lives of two families in his Gills Creek neighborhood.
Haley Clamp, 27, who has known Wienges most of her life, said she wasn’t surprised when she read about his rescue mission on Facebook.
“I wouldn’t expect him to do anything less than everything he possibly could to help someone,” Clamp said. It was right in line with the character of the 28-year-old lobbyist, a “great guy from a great family,” she said.
Wienges can’t say exactly what made him decide to stay home or why he didn’t go to sleep that night.
“Ninety-nine percent of the time, I would’ve gone to watch the game with my brother; I wouldn’t have stayed in Columbia by myself,” Wienges said.
But as he recounted what happened minute by minute, he said, “I definitely stayed for a reason.”
7:30 p.m., Saturday, Oct. 3: Wienges’ brother calls to invite him to come home to St. Matthews to watch the game. Wienges says he was about five minutes away from leaving but decided for some reason to stay in Columbia.
2:30 a.m., Sunday: Wienges is about to go to bed when he decides to look outside again and sees it raining like he’d never seen before.
4 a.m.: Wienges decides against going to sleep, so he says he turns on the news for a weather update and makes a pot of coffee. He had some things stored under his Timberlane Drive house, which is about 10 feet off the ground, and says he wanted to keep an eye on the water rising on the street. But he doesn’t think the water can get into his house, as high as it is.
6 a.m.: Wienges says he hears an older neighbor call for help. He says he was shocked to find water up to his knees as he crossed the street and nearly up to his waist in the neighbor’s home. But he didn’t expect water levels to rise any higher. He moves the man and his wife over to his home, sometimes carrying them across the water. He gets them into his house around 6:30 a.m., and the water is still rising.
7 a.m.: Wienges keeps calling 911 – about 20 times, he says. Lexington County dispatch answers once, but when they try to connect him to Richland County, there’s still no response. His next-door neighbor had left about 90 minutes earlier. Wienges spots a canoe under that house, which is raised like his, and decides he needs it to get the older couple to safety.
“I knew it would be our best option to get them out of the house, since they were older and the water was so deep and the current was so quick,” Wienges says.
He calls the neighbor, gets permission to use the canoe and swims over. The water is so high Wienges barely has 2 feet of clearance from the ceiling to get it out. The possibility that one of the dams in the Gills Creek watershed has broken crosses his mind. He’s certain the rising water is from more than just the rain.
7:30 a.m.: Wienges gets his neighbors and his dog to higher ground about 50 feet from his house. Other neighbors who evacuated say they’ve heard cries for help from another nearby house. Wienges and another neighbor, Phil Lenski, start off in the canoe toward the cries. Lenski says the current was pulling tires and garbage cans out of garages and down the street.
About five houses down Timberlane Drive, the pair see a man looking from a vent under the peak of his roof, calling for help. The family of four, including two children, had awakened around 5:45 a.m. to waist‑deep water in their home and their cars submerged. Water was now coming into the attic of the one-story home where the family and their two dogs had retreated.
“I’d never seen anyone with the look on their face that they did; they thought they were going to die,” Wienges says. “My heart dropped in my stomach when I saw it.”
CBS News later said the woman, Angela Cole, had posted desperate pleas on Facebook: “If anyone has a boat, PLEASE HELP 4220 TIMBERLANE DR. 29205. I HAVE TWO CHILDREN, ONE WITH SPECIAL NEEDS,” and “if ANYONE AT ALL HAS A BOAT, PLEASE, PLEASE HELP.” Wienges hadn’t seen them.
It took two trips to get Cole, her children and one of their dogs to higher ground about 100 feet away.
“When we turned the corner and saw their facial expressions and how relieved they were when we got there – they were so surprised and thankful. They literally thought nobody was coming for them,” Wienges said.
Another neighbor in a larger boat, who had seen Cole’s Facebook post, rescued the man, later identified by CBS News as Craig Smith, and the other dog. Just 4 feet of breathing room was left, Wienges says, with maybe 20 minutes before the house was submerged.
“It was really surreal, to be honest,” Wienges said. “Rowing back there in a canoe, getting pushed around by the current, having things like refrigerators, tires, snakes float by you. It was something from the movies; you’d never expect it down here in Columbia.”
Lenski says the rescue “was really a testament to John’s selflessness, when here he was watching his own house go underwater – all of his things, his bed, his books, his stereo, and everything all going underwater – and he’s out there saving people.”
Lenski had worked with Wienges’ father at the South Carolina Senate and had met Wienges a few times, but he said they were so focused on what they had to do, they didn’t recognize each other until it was over.