Like most Oregonians, Stephanie McRae was used to driving in foul weather.
Although rain still pelted the windshield of her SUV, the worst of the day’s storm seemed to have passed as she drove her 11-year-old daughter, Maddison, home from a church youth-group at 8:30 p.m.
Maddie rode up front, while two toddlers the McRaes are fostering sat strapped into their car seats in back. McRae, 39, turned her blue Ford Expedition onto South Prairie Road, where the family lives in rural Tillamook. Rounding a curve to cross over Fawcett Creek, McRae confronted a terrifying sight: The road just ahead had caved in and washed away. She slammed on the brakes. The SUV skidded into the gaping hole, plunged into the flooded culvert some 20 feet below, and was flushed into the creek, which the storm had turned into a raging river 100 feet wide. Rocks and downed tree branches smashed into the Ford, which flipped upside down. The pressure blew out the windows.
No one was hurt, but there was no way to escape either. The SUV was being swept toward the Tillamook River, barely a quarter mile away. McRae screamed helplessly into the night for her husband, Dan, and prayed aloud with Maddie: “Please, God, please, help us!”
“I actually didn’t think any of us would get out,” McRae recalls. The vehicle, submerged and filling with water, came to a stop when it lodged at an angle in a logjam.
It was Maddie who took control. Pushing her way out the shattered back cargo window, the slight but athletic preteen scrambled on top of the SUV, which had righted itself, and yelled to her mother to hoist up the younger children. Soon all four were huddled on top of the car’s battered roof, trying to hold on as the water swept over them, rising higher and higher. McRae clutched the two-year-old to her chest while holding the three-year-old on her leg and wrapping an arm around him. Both children were so quiet that McRae wondered if they were all right.
“Mom, I have to go get help,” Maddie cried.
McRae realized it was their only hope. If she tried to go herself, she knew, Maddie wouldn’t be able to hold on to the two toddlers, and all three children might drown. But Maddie was still recovering from foot surgery and had been out of a cast for only a week. How was she going to manage? They were stranded in the middle of the swelling torrent in complete darkness, more than 25 feet from the creek bank.
McRae looked at her small, determined daughter. “I’m thinking, This is the last chance I may get to talk to her. What do I need to tell her?” she recalls. “I love you!” she shouted over the roaring water. “I’m proud of you. Be careful!”
“I know I can do it,” Maddie replied. The 95-pound sixth grader grabbed a thin, mossy branch hanging over the SUV and began to shinny across the creek. Reaching the bank, she jumped into “a whole bunch of prickly bushes,” then took off running. “I was in, like, power mode,” she recalls.
With the cold water now creeping up to her chest and her arms growing numb around the two toddlers, McRae could see her daughter’s silhouette as she darted up the hill toward the nearest neighbor’s back pasture. Suddenly she heard Maddie scream.
“I ran into an electric fence,” Maddie recalls. “It really hurt.” Barefoot and soaking wet, she tried to climb it four or five times, thrown back each time by a shock meant to contain horses. Finally she found a cold spot near the gate and got over. McRae saw a porch light go on at the top of the hill.
Inside, the neighbors immediately called 911 and were told that emergency dispatch had already received word about trouble at Fawcett Creek: Rescuers were making their way from the collapsed bridge toward another stranded vehicle. Maddie joined the neighbors as they ran to the creek, then helped point out where her mother was trapped. As Tillamook firefighters’ flashlights swept across the water, they landed on a partially submerged car farther downriver. “That’s not my family!” Maddie cried.
“I’m here,” McRae’s voice called from across the creek. “You have to get us!”
While the Coast Guard’s swift-water rescue team carried the other family out, Fire Capt. Chuck Spittles struggled to find a way to get to McRae. He and his crew dragged a 35-foot extension ladder from one of their trucks to the creek bank and maneuvered it as close to the SUV as they could get-about ten feet above McRae. The lightest firefighter, Lt. Aaron Burris, crawled down the makeshift gangplank with a lifeline. McRae cinched it to the three-year-old so that Burris could hoist the toddler up and hand him to another rescuer at the end of the ladder. They repeated the drill with the two-year-old.
Finally, McRae grabbed the ladder and was hoisted up. Once back on land, her numb legs gave out. More than an hour had passed since the ordeal began.
Maddie raced into her mother’s arms. “She hugged me for, like, five minutes,” Maddie remembers. McRae and the two children were treated for hypothermia at a local hospital and sent home that night.
Revisiting the accident site in daylight, Spittles was dumbfounded. The only branch that Maddie could possibly have grasped was maybe four inches in diameter—too flimsy to have supported her. “I still don’t know how she got off that rig,” he marvels.
Maddie and her mother went back to Fawcett Creek before the SUV was hauled out and were also unable to figure out how Maddie had made it across. Not that they dwell on it. Maddie accepted an award for her heroism, but she’s happier just getting back to her sports teams and her youth group. But her mother considers the rescue–like her daughter–“nothing short of a miracle.”