At least four killed, others missing as heavy rain floods Interstate 35

EMPORIA, Kan. (AP) _ Flash flooding from a torrential rain storm swept seven vehicles off a section of Interstate 35, killing at least four people, and authorities were searching for two others still missing

Sunday, August 31st 2003, 12:00 am

By: News On 6

EMPORIA, Kan. (AP) _ Flash flooding from a torrential rain storm swept seven vehicles off a section of Interstate 35, killing at least four people, and authorities were searching for two others still missing Sunday.

The bodies of four children, all from a family in Liberty, Mo., were recovered, said Capt. Mark Conboy of the Kansas Turnpike Authority.

Three of the children were strapped into the family's minivan, which was found 1 1/2 miles from the scene. The fourth child was found Sunday morning about a quarter mile from the van. Conboy said the father survived, but searchers were still looking for the mother.

The only other person who had not been accounted for Sunday was a man from Fort Worth, Texas. Conboy said the man called his wife Saturday evening, told her his Jeep had stalled and asked her to come get him. The wife, who arrived at the scene Sunday morning, has not heard from him since that call.

She was staying at an Emporia hotel and declined to be interviewed.

``We believe he got out first and was out trying to help people,'' Conboy said. ``That was just based on what he told his wife.''

Conboy said the search near the Chase-Lyon counties border, about 10 miles south of Emporia, would continue until dark Sunday and would resume on Monday, if necessary. A search dog sniffed the ground for clues, while a helicopter roared overhead.

The Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks was using boats and four-wheel vehicles to help the search of the low-lying, rocky area in the Flint Hills, which is bordered by a small creek called Jacob's Creek. Drizzle was still falling Sunday afternoon and the water around the turnpike was thigh-deep in some areas.

Conboy said the first call came in at 8:36 p.m. Saturday.

``They just described it as a wall of water that came across the road,'' said Conboy, who estimated the water reached 6-7 feet in the area.

The National Weather Service said the Emporia area had received 8-12 inches of rain in 24 hours beginning early Saturday.

``It's kind of rocky terrain,'' said Brad Ketcham, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Wichita. ``It doesn't take a lot of water very well because the water doesn't soak in.''

More than likely he said Jacob's Creek is dry most of the time. But it would have filled quickly because of the volume of rain and the rocky terrain, he said. At one point, the creek passes under the highway, through a culvert.

``We've heard reports that it was a wall of water,'' Ketcham said. ``I can't substantiate it, but it doesn't surprise me that there was six feet of water over the road, based on our precipitation estimates.''

The Rev. Steve Gordon, of the Bethany Missionary Baptist Church in Kansas City, Mo., was one of those forced to stop on the northbound lanes of the interstate Saturday night as he and a church deacon were returning to Kansas City from Dallas.

He said he and deacon J.R. Robinson got out of their car after sitting for nearly an hour in torrential rains.

``It looked like a river going across the road,'' Gordon said. ``The concrete barriers (between lanes) were being tossed around like feathers.''

Gordon said he saw three cars in the southbound lanes swept under water, and Robinson saw four or five. The lone highway patrolman at the site was using a bullhorn to try and get people to stop driving through the water, but many people did not heed the warning.

``It happened really fast, there was nothing that could be done,'' Gordon said. ``It was a sick feeling just watching them go under.''

Gordon said he began telling people in the northbound lanes _ where the water was covering car tires _ to turn around and drive south. Several did but some refused, he said.

``I will go to church this morning and be in prayer for those families,'' he said. ``It was devastating. I feel blessed to be alive today.''

The waters left washed out chunks of the interstate and swept some of the heavy concrete barriers _ which weigh between 10,000 and 12,000 pounds _ 50 to 60 yards away. The abandoned vehicles were strewn about the valley, which is about a half-mile wide in some areas and covered with grass and a few trees. One of the vehicles had Oklahoma plates, another had Johnson County, Kan., plates.

The interstate was open to one lane traffic each way Sunday as workers tried to restore the barriers. It was unclear how long the other lanes would be closed.

Conboy said Jacob's Creek was not known for having flooding problems.

``There are turnpike guys who've been here 30 years who've never seen anything like it,'' he said.

More rain and thunderstorms were forecast Sunday for much of the Central Plains, and a flood watch was in effect for much of Kansas.

The storm that swept through the state Friday and Saturday dropped as much as 6 inches of rain on Topeka and Wichita. In Dodge City, in southwest Kansas, 4 to 7 inches of rain fell in a 24-hour period and several motorists had to be rescued from vehicles stranded in high water.

``We've seen some of the vehicles floating down the road,'' said Dodge City Police Sgt. Steven George.

The National Weather Service issued a flood watch effective until 6 p.m. Sunday for several counties in central and eastern Kansas. Heavy rain was expected to continue over areas that had already received 3 to 5 inches over the past several days.

``It's very unusual for this time of year to have those kind of rainfall numbers,'' Ketcham said. ``Those are the kinds of things you expect in the spring months, but not during the summer like this.''


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