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Ike victims recall 8-mile slog to higher ground

Roommates from a Texas beach town recall how they and neighbors were caught by surprise and then had to walk eight miles through waves and high water to get to safety.
Ike The Rescued
Thelma Stewart and Robert Greenleaf sit outside a shelter in San Antonio, Texas, on Monday. The two and other neighbors trudged through crashing waves and deadly currents to escape their island community of Gilchrist.Pauline Arrillaga / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

For four hours the two roommates trudged through crashing waves and deadly currents to escape their island community. He, clinging to a neighbor's small boy. She, helping an elderly couple. Four hours for this caravan of the desperate to go just four miles. And that was before the eye of Hurricane Ike had even reached the shore.

Only then, believing they faced almost certain death, did Robert Greenleaf and Thelma Stewart take a Sharpie and write their names and Social Security numbers on their arms. Then they waited, and waited — taking shelter in a friend's brick home on higher ground.

When a Blackhawk helicopter finally flew them to safety, they saw their waterfront Eden completely submerged. They now live in a warehouse-turned-shelter in San Antonio. They wear donated clothes, branded as evacuees by white wrist bands.

Heroic, some of their fellow storm survivors have called them. But they prefer another word: blessed.

"We did what we had to do, the best we could," Greenleaf said, "to save our lives, and others."

Nearly 2,000 rescued
The rescued. They have become the story behind the storm that battered the Texas coast these past days. By Monday, nearly 2,000 people had been saved from flooded streets and demolished homes in a Herculean search and rescue effort done by air, boat and on foot.

Hundreds arrived, two full days after Hurricane Ike struck, at the Port San Antonio shelter, including at least eight packed buses from hard-hit Galveston Island. On Sunday night, exhausted evacuees emerged and piled into a line for processing. Some rolled suitcases or hoisted backpacks. Others carried only trash bags or pillowcases stuffed with belongings.

A woman in a wheelchair, her eyes tired and vacant, cradled only a small, green suitcase in her lap.

Many of these didn't have to be "rescued" in the sense that most might imagine. They weren't plucked from rooftops by a helicopter or whisked away in an airboat. They had decided to ride out the storm. Then, they realized the damage was worse than they expected. They started running out of food and water, heard that the electricity could be out for a month.

So when authorities came Sunday morning to tell them they could leave by bus, they did.

"It's not really the hurricane that messes with you. It's the aftermath," said Shad Landry, who was waiting to register. "I guess this is better."

Ruben Perez, another Galveston evacuee, lamented that the devastation was simply too much. "There was nothing to stay for," he said.

Gilchrist flooded early
Not everyone, though, stayed behind by choice or even necessity; not all had to be saved because of a bad decision. Greenleaf, 59, and Stewart, 30, had planned to leave before the storm. But Ike unleashed its fury much sooner than even forecasters thought. Some, like these two friends, simply found themselves stuck.

The pickup truck was packed and ready to go, filled with water and Gatorade, a charcoal grill, Stewart's important papers — the title to her truck and her mobile home — in a watertight bag. She and Greenleaf had planned to leave first thing Friday from the tiny community of Gilchrist on Bolivar Peninsula, bounded by the Gulf of Mexico on one side, Galveston Bay on the other.

A home is left standing among debris from Hurricane Ike September 14, 2008 in Gilchrist, Texas. Floodwaters from Hurricane Ike are reportedly as high as eight feet in some areas causing widespread damage across the coast of Texas. AFP PHOTO/POOL/Smiley N. POOL (Photo credit should read Smiley N. Pool/AFP/Getty Images)Smiley N. Pool / POOL

Then at 3 a.m. Friday, Stewart woke with a start. She stepped outside of her mobile home, and water was up to her knees.

She and Greenleaf started banging on neighbors' doors at the RV park where they lived. Only one man answered, and Stewart was insistent: "We have to go! Now!"

The three hopped in her truck and headed onto Highway 87 out of town. But the water was rising inches in just minutes. Soon enough, the pickup stalled. They and some others who were also trying to flee piled into the bed of a bigger truck, but after only a few more miles, a wave knocked the truck sideways. They had no choice but to wade through the murky waters toward safety.

There were 12 or 13 of them in all, a neighbor, the manager of the local tavern, a husband and wife with their toddler son and young daughter, a couple in their 70s or 80s. Greenleaf hoisted the young boy into his arms.

"Grab whatever you've got to," he told the crying child. "Just don't let go."

Stewart stayed by the older folks, and they all set out beneath the moonlight.

Gilchrist was about eight miles southwest of a part of the peninsula known as High Island, because it's on higher ground.

They still had four miles to go.

They walked in silence, concentrating on keeping their footing. Stewart saw snakes slither by, cars submerged, debris — unrecognizable — floating along in the rising waters. At one point, she lost her footing, carried by the current into the side of a car. She grabbed on and found her footing once more. The others helped her get back to the group.

"Whenever someone went down, we grabbed them. Whenever I went down, they grabbed me," she recalled.

At times the water receded, falling to Greenleaf's waist, only to rise again to his chest. The worst was when the battering waves would tower over them. Greenleaf would hoist the little boy high over his head. "Don't be scared," he told him.

For hours they walked on. Finally, just after the sunrise, they arrived at a turn in the highway and saw a police car's flashing lights. At last, dry ground. While the others piled into a waiting helicopter, Greenleaf and Stewart felt confident that they could now borrow a car and drive out. Little did they know that that, too, would prove impossible.

Soon, the water was 5 feet deep on the "dry" side of the peninsula. The two made it to a friend's house, and rode out the storm with nine others, at one point scribbling their personal information on their arms. Stewart managed to cry herself to sleep as the eye of Ike blew over them. Greenleaf stayed up, ensuring no water was seeping into the house.

Saturday morning, once the storm had passed, they heard the whirring of helicopters once again. The Blackhawks landed on the high school football field. This time, Greenleaf and Stewart got a ride.

As they looked out the window at Gilchrist below, they held each other and cried.

"It was all under water," Stewart said, "what used to be Gilchrist — and our lives."

'Nothing there' to go back to
When they arrived at the shelter late Saturday night, they literally had only the clothes on their backs: Greenleaf and his "Got Fish?" baseball cap, and Stewart in her black Gloria Vanderbilt jeans, still soaked. They checked in, ate some food, got some dry clothes and tried to think about what to do next.

"They said it was going to be over a month before anybody had any electricity," Stewart said.

"I guess we'll stay here," Greenleaf said. "We certainly can't go back to where we came from, because there's nothing there."

When others at the shelter started asking about the name and numbers on his arm, Greenleaf simply said he didn't want to talk about it. Then he scrubbed himself clean, hoping to halt the questions.

Stewart washed her arm, but she can't erase the bruises left by her fellow evacuees as they clung to her, saving her from the raging waters.

They recounted their harrowing tale Sunday evening, sitting on folding chairs under a tarp outside the warehouse at Port San Antonio. Now and then other friends approached, telling of news or rumors: A business destroyed and, worse, a man they all called Pee Wee whom they fear didn't make it out alive.

At that news, Stewart fought back tears. Greenleaf simply shook his head in silence. His eyes were streaked red, out of sheer exhaustion. He hadn't slept, he said, since Thursday night. And he wasn't sure when he would again.