As darkness descended one May evening in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, rain fell in sheets on the ranch-style house where the Hammonds family lived. Around 10 p.m., Mike and Michaelann Hammonds went downstairs to check the basement and found water seeping under a window along the basement’s south wall. The couple began to push boxes of clothes, toys, and household items toward the center of the room.
Minutes later, without warning, the basement’s west wall gave way, and a flood of cold, muddy water rushed in, engulfing the room and the couple and covering the stairs. By the time the surge ended a few seconds later, Mike and Michaelann were caught in eight feet of water, pinned in place by debris on opposite sides of the room. They had to hold their faces just above water. The smell of natural gas permeated the room.
“Go get Don!” Mike yelled to their kids, Emma, 14, and Matthew, 13, who were standing at the top of the basement stairs. Don Molesky, 49, a long-haul trucker, and his mother, Helen, 75, lived across the street.
Don was mopping up water in his own basement when he heard the kids yelling for help at his back door. He waded with the kids across the street, where they led him to the basement stairs. When Don saw what was happening, he called to Matthew to dial 911, then ran back across the street to get a saw.
John underwood, 29, vice president of a development and property-management firm, had stopped his truck behind a disabled car at the flooded intersection just outside the Hammondses’ home. When he got out to check on the driver, he heard a girl scream, “My parents are trapped!”
John, a retired Marine, ran toward the house. Once inside, he realized that he’d have to cut a hole in the floor to reach the couple. He sent Matthew to grab an ax from the garage.
“Where are you?” John yelled through the floor.
“Here!” Michaelann responded from an area under the front door.
John pulled up carpet and yelled out a warning to Michaelann, then swung the ax and hacked a line across the living room floor. Don returned with his circular saw, and the two men cut out a rectangular panel. John pulled back the wood and heating ducts and thrust his hand into the water. Michaelann grasped it, and John and Don pulled her out. Then Don wrapped Michaelann in a coat, and a neighbor ushered her out of the house.
The men were dizzy from breathing the gas, but they went back for Mike, who’d been in the freezing water for about 45 minutes.
John called down to Mike, who was found in a space under the hallway between the living room and kitchen. As John and Don began to cut, three firefighters arrived; together, the five men broke through and pulled Mike to safety. “I couldn’t stop saying thank you, ” says Mike.
Three days later, city authorities condemned the Hammondses’ house. The couple didn’t have flood insurance, but county officials agreed to buy the house for the amount the family owed on their mortgage. They’ve relocated to a furnished rental house close to their old neighborhood for the time being.
“John and Don didn’t consider for a moment that their lives were in danger,” Mike attests.
As for the heroes, they were simply happy to help their neighbors. Says John, “Now we’re all connected.”