OUACHITA NATIONAL FOREST — Some people awoke to roaring floodwaters. Others were roused by panicked banging on their cabin doors. At least a few got out of bed and were plunged almost immediately into deep, churning water.
Vacationing families camped in a remote Arkansas valley had only a moment or two in the darkness to escape from the worst flood to hit this area in nearly 30 years. For at least 18 people, it wasn't enough.
The deadly wall of water that rushed through a region southwest of Little Rock struck with such force that witnesses could hear trees being ripped apart and lumber buckling in homes that had been smashed.
Terry Whatley was staying at the Albert Pike Recreation Area with a group of about 35 friends and relatives. Around 3:30 a.m. Friday, someone pounded on the door of his camper to warn of the rising water.
He gathered everyone and got out into ankle-deep water. Soon it rose to up to their chests as they tried to reach higher ground.
"I just started thinking to myself, 'This is a bad way to die,'" said Whatley, whose group included three people who were confirmed killed in the flash flood.
The raging floodwaters killed at least 18 people before dawn Friday and left in their wake a path of destruction marked by cars hurled into trees, heavily damaged or destroyed cabins, even pavement that had been peeled off roads and bark off trees.
Vacationers were drawn by the campground's rustic landscape: a lush valley ringed with mountains on the southern edge of the Ouachita National Forest. But by the early Friday, heavy rains had turned the Caddo and Little Missouri rivers into lethal torrents.
'No place for it to go'
In seconds, survivors had to decide how to save their lives and those of their loved ones. Some clung to trees, others climbed on top of cars bobbing like boats in the swift current.
Terry Scott figures he got lucky. His wife woke him at 4 a.m. By 4:30, the cabin was flooded with jade-colored water.
"It's full of mud, water," he said. "I just closed it back up and left."
Whatley's 24-year-old son, Matt, and a friend, J.D. Quinn, were sitting on the porch of a nearby cabin as the water rose. They soon started trying to warn people in cabins and campers.
"You couldn't hear anything. Just lumber and houses being destroyed and trees ripping. We couldn't even talk to each other when we were in the water," Quinn said.
On Saturday, rescue crews in kayaks, on horseback and on all-terrain vehicles searched for campers who were still missing. The last person found alive was rescued late Friday morning.
Arkansas State Police Capt. Mike Fletcher said there were about two dozen people still unaccounted for — a number far lower than initial estimates based on the belief that 300 people were in and around the campground when the flood swept through.
Forecasters had warned of the approaching danger during the night, but campers could easily have missed those advisories because of the late hour and the remoteness of the area, where broadcasting and cell-phone signals are weak at best.
Sharon Paxton, who lives in the valley, described the panic among cabin owners after water chased dozens of people from their campgrounds along the two rivers.
Having saved himself, Paxton's husband stayed behind to help.
"There were RVs floating by, and my husband was picking people off," she said.
Vehicles and bodies were carried several miles downstream by the rushing water. Among the dead was a 6-year-old girl who slipped from her mother's grasp in the current, a local pastor said.
Slideshow: Fatal flooding in Arkansas As the water receded at Camp Albert, scenes of the devastation remained: a smashed stroller with childrens' booties and flip-flops scattered nearby, tents torn to ribbons, a car wrapped around a tree, hunks of rock and earth deposited indiscriminately onto roads and campsites.
The possessions left behind underscored how quickly the danger came.
At campsite A9, a trailer was smashed into a tree. A fly swatter, skillet and some coffee mugs on a table were all that remained.
Next door, at site A10, the only thing left was an American flag nailed to a post.
Some laundry still hung on clotheslines, unaffected by the rush of water. The place smelled like swamp and garbage, and hundreds of flies descended on the campsite.
The torrent was so fierce that some residents labeled the flood an act of the devil.
At a candlelight vigil Friday night, about 40 people prayed for the lost and acknowledged the hard days ahead.
"Father, if people ever needed you, they need you tonight," Pastor Scott Kitchens said in a prayer.
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