'They saved my life': Hawkins woman recounts Big Creek rescue

Jeff Bobo • Feb 7, 2019 at 8:30 PM

ROGERSVILLE — Connie Hickman had already made it through “bumper deep” water on her way to work Thursday morning when she crossed a bridge and came upon a second flooded roadway that her 4-wheel-drive pickup couldn’t handle.

Shortly after 6 a.m., multiple Hawkins County  rescue agencies as well as the sheriff’s office responded to a flooded section of Blevins Road along Big Creek just east of Rogersville, where Hickman’s truck had floated away and started to sink.

Sitting in the backseat of her pickup chest deep in freezing water, Hickman quickly became a firm believer in the phrase “Turn around, don’t drown.”

Then Deputy Mark Harrell and Hawkins County Rescue Squad member John Gardner swam to her truck, broke out the back window and pulled her out.

Why did you think you could get through that second flooded road?

“My four-wheel-drive pickup gave me a false sense of security. I figured, ‘It’s a four-wheel-drive truck, and it’s higher off the ground than a car. This is just water. I can do this.’ Trust me when I tell you, that is bull. (After crossing the bridge) it never crossed my mind that Big Creek would be in the road further down because it’s a good distance from the road. After I passed the church and was headed toward the highway (11-W), the closer I got to the highway, the deeper it got ... and pretty soon it’s up to my headlights. I kept thinking positive. ‘It’s not that deep. You got this.’ No. By the time I decided, ‘This isn’t working out, I want to back up,’ the water was already on my hood and the current had got me. It picked me up and just started floating me away slowly.”

Her first instinct was to call her fiance, Marc Williford, and then they both called 911. For some reason, her cell phone called Grainger County 911, which relayed what she was saying to Hawkins County Central Dispatch.

What were you thinking while waiting for rescuers to arrive?

“I started to panic. I tried to roll my (electric) window down, and it didn’t work. And then I called 911 because I realized I wasn’t getting out of here. The water was getting on my feet. The next thing you know, it’s mid-calf. The nose of my truck is sinking, and the rear end is coming up. I unbuckled myself and got in the back seat and talked to the 911 lady. Thank God for her. She helped me keep from getting totally hysterical.”

When did you know help had arrived?

“The water was still rising, and I was floating away in the dark. And then I saw a flashlight out my passenger side window. I didn’t realize my truck had gotten turned around facing the way I had come from. Once I got in the water, I lost all sense of direction. I kept waving my hand in the window to let him know I was in there. By then both of my (front seat) headrests are completely submerged in water.”

Walk us through the actual rescue.

“I’m trying not to panic. The truck is hung up on something, and I’m not sinking anymore. Water is still coming in but not fast. It got mid-chest. I seen them swimming and they tried to grab the truck because the current was pretty fast, and they missed the front of the truck but caught hold of the bed and climbed in. One of them told me to cover my face and he broke the back glass.”

Was the water cold?

“I was in that water at least 30 minutes and my legs were numb. They helped me crawl out the back window because I couldn’t get my legs to cooperate. They were just hanging there. The men put a life vest on me and tied me to a rope, and I recall one of the men actually helping me get my second leg over the side of the truck bed because I couldn’t lift it. Hypothermia — that ain’t no joke. It’s real. He lowered me into the water so I wouldn’t submerge over my head, and the men on shore pulled me out pretty quick.”

She needed help getting to her feet once they got her ashore, and rescuers helped her walk to the ambulance, where medics attempted to get her warm.

How long did this ordeal last?

“According to my phone, I called Marc at 6:02 in the morning, and I checked it again when I was in the ambulance, and it was 6:45. Once they got me out of my truck and on shore, they took me immediately to the EMS truck.”

What can you say about your rescuers?

“In my opinion, they responded very fast. But when you’re in there and it’s happening to you, it feels like forever. They were calm, and they were collected and confident that it wasn’t going to be a problem getting me out of there. I’m just so thankful they responded as fast as they did. They said that the truck sunk further quite a bit after I got out of it. I kept apologizing to them for getting them out that early. I’m so thankful for them, and I appreciate them, and I’m sorry they had to get their hind-ends wet first thing in the morning. But, if it wasn’t for them, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be here. They saved my life. I’m confident I would have been gone.”

Do you think you’ll be crossing flooded roads again?

“Absolutely not. It was flooded a lot more than I gave it credit for, and I s--- you not, when they say, ‘Don’t ride across’ — don’t ride across. Turn around. I should have turned around the first time. It’s that false sense of security. I’m in a big truck. Four-wheel-drive. ‘I got this.’ No ... you don’t. Stop. Turn around. Use your common sense. Seriously. Turn around, don’t drown.”