Black water was churning so hard around his tractor that Jimmy Grossnickle thought he, too, might be swept away.
The tractor -- a huge vehicle with a cab that stands as tall as he does -- had driven into darkness and into water so deep that the machine shuddered as he pushed forward. He was making an ill-fated attempt about 8:30 p.m. Tuesday to rescue three young people swept from a pickup truck on the road in front of his Frederick County farm.
At least two of them were clinging to the thin branches of a tree just 15 feet away, tossed up and down by the swift current.
He remembered yesterday that he heard their screams but could not make out their faces. By their voices, he said, he thought that one was a man and one a woman, but it was almost too noisy to tell. The tractor was loud, and the water created an unbelievable roar. It foamed around the engine block, threatening to swamp them.
"That tractor weighs seven or eight tons, and the water was just rocking us back and forth," he said.
Unable to drive closer because of the water's depth and a submerged guardrail at the edge of the road, Grossnickle tied a rope around his son David, 25, who was in the cab with him. His son was going to try to wade or swim to the stranded people. But the current knocked him down, and it took all of his father's strength to haul him back with the rope.
Afraid his son might be swept away, too, Grossnickle began pitching the looped end of the rope toward the voices screaming for help as the minutes clicked by.
"They didn't have a good grip. They were just holding on to brush," he said.
And then the screams stopped.
Struggling to hold on
Yesterday, Grossnickle returned to the spot along the Wolfsville Road and to the spindly, 20-foot tree on the bank of Middle Creek where the victims had struggled to hold on.
The stream runs along Route 17 through shaggy hillsides and open pastures, closer to Catoctin Mountain in western Frederick County than to the growing bedroom communities to the south and east. About eye level he saw the frayed shank of a branch, not much thicker than a curtain rod, that had snapped the night before.
"I bet you dollars to doughnuts that's the branch where she was," he said quietly. "I could have done something if I had got to them."
The three victims were also Myersville residents. They perished in the floodwaters of Middle Creek, a small tributary of Catoctin Creek that in most places can normally be crossed on foot by stepping stone to stone. Two of them -- Jesse R. Haulsee, 24, and Angelia S. Haulsee, 29 -- were trying to reach their 2-year-old daughter, who was being cared for at Jesse's mother's house just on the other side of the stream on East Church Hill Road, according to witnesses who spoke to them before the accident.
Whether the storm waters swept them and their friend Eric C. Zepp, 19, from the back of the pickup or whether they thought they could swim to their destination is not clear, said Cpl. Jennifer Bailey, a spokeswoman for the Frederick County Sheriff's Office. She declined to identify the driver of the pickup, who survived, saying the investigation was still underway.
Dwayne Weddle, 47, Jesse Haulsee's great-uncle, said the family was too shaken up to talk.
Witnesses said the three abandoned their car -- a burgundy Cougar whose child seat was stuffed with children's videos -- on a stranger's lawn on a bluff above the tiny town of Ellerton about 8:30 p.m. They walked down Harmony Road and turned left onto Wolfsville Road, Route 17, and began wading in waist-high water toward Jesse's mother's house, less than a half-mile away, according to witnesses.
Kim Wise and her boyfriend, Richard Jordan, were standing on their front porch at Harmony and Wolfsville roads, videotaping the muddy water lapping at their feet. The creek had risen over the bridge and filled Wolfsville Road. Then they saw Jesse Haulsee and two people they did not recognize walking around the corner, wading through water.
Jesse was in the middle of the road in front of the house when suddenly the current took his feet from under him. Wise, 35, fished him out with a broom handle, and he leaned on the porch to steady himself, she said.
"I said, 'What the hell are you doing?' and he said, 'I got to get my kid,' " Wise said.
The spill was enough to make Jesse reluctant to go further, but the other two persuaded him to keep going, the couple said.
"He looked like he was scared to death, because he didn't want to go any farther," said Jordan, 41. "We said, 'Y'all are crazy.' "
Somewhere farther south on Wolfsville Road, the driver of a brown-and-black four-by-four Chevy pickup gave the three a lift.
‘An angel from heaven’
Grossnickle, 53, was sitting on the porch of his farmhouse, watching the storm with his wife and other relatives, when they saw the pickup, water up to its headlights, chugging toward the turnoff at East Church Hill Road. Water was pouring over the bridge that carried East Church Hill Road over Middle Creek, something Grossnickle had never seen before. He had already pulled a motorist to safety from a stalled car in front of his house.
"He is an angel from heaven," said Lori Pearson, 50, a bank executive in Baltimore who had been heading home from work about 6:30 p.m. when she was caught in the rising waters. She said she saw a line of cars going through the fast-rising water, figured she was only a mile from her new home in Myersville and decided to risk it. Stuck, she dialed 911 in a panic. As the water seeped into the car and approached the windows, the emergency dispatcher was ordering her to climb onto the car when she saw Grossnickle's tractor.
"He was just as calm as could be," she said. "He just pulled me out by the arm."
Pearson watched the water swallow her car and called her husband. Then the pickup came down the road.
"We couldn't believe it. Somebody said, 'It looks like you're going to have another rescue,' " Grossnickle said.
When the three people floated out of the back of the pickup, Grossnickle thought they were kids horsing around, maybe with inner tubes and ropes. Grossnickle's wife told Pearson it appeared that the three left the truck on purpose. Then they heard screams and watched as the dark water swept the three away.
"It was just a bloodcurdling sound, the way they were screaming for help," Pearson said. "It was horrible. You just feel so helpless in a situation like that -- and then worse when it goes quiet. That water was just so vicious."