Tulsa couple escapes disaster in Venezuela

Tuesday, December 21st 1999, 12:00 am

By: News On 6

TULSA, Okla. (AP) -- A Tulsa couple is grateful to be alive after hiking for miles through death and destruction to escape floodwaters in Venezuela. Rob and Sandy Tucker went four days with almost no food and little to drink before fleeing last weekend from the city of Macuto.

Back at home Tuesday, Tucker described seeing streets flowing like rivers and cars being swept into the ocean. The couple's own six-hour trek involved crossing through flooded areas near the ocean's edge. "You just go one second at a time and make it," he said. Tucker, a 36-year-old senior systems engineer for Flint Industries, had gone to Venezuela to check on computers at the company's Venezuelan subsidiary. The weather seemed strange last week. "It should have been warm -- 90 or 95 degrees," he said. "Bu tit was cold enough to see your breath. And it was raining pretty hard. Still, it didn't seem to be a problem or anything to worry about."

He and his 41-year-old wife were headed home when the flooding began. They awoke Thursday to find flood water surging on the first floor of the hotel where they were staying. With the help of firefighters, the Tulsa couple and other guests fled their hotel for one on higher ground through waist-high flood waters, dodging debris as it swept down from the mountains. "If you lost your grip on that rope," Tucker said, "that would be it. You didn't have a chance."

As many as 150,000 people have been left homeless in the Venezuelan floods. Thousands of people are reported missing and many of them presumed dead. The Tuckers used cellular telephones to contact Flint Industries back in Tulsa. The company tried to send a truck from a nearby city to pick up the Tuckers, but the highway was washed out.

And then, Venezuelan officials who were facing a shortage of rescue aircraft confiscated helicopters intended to rescue the Tuckers and other oil workers in the area. "Then Flintco tried another route," Tucker said. "They paid the Venezuelan government a large sum of money to send Venezuelan army helicopters to pick us up."

The choppers and the Tuckers were supposed to rendezvous near the Hotel Macuto early Saturday. "But the choppers never came. And then our situation got a lot worse," Tucker said. Later Saturday morning, the Venezuela national guard pulled out of the area, warning all citizens to leave, too, because officials feared a massive outbreak of disease from thousands of rotting corpses.

Without the protection of troops, the Tuckers feared for their lives. Looters already were plundering the hotel and becoming increasingly violent. That's when they began hiking for the airport, climbing over mudslides and wading through floodwaters. They walked for six hours. Tucker isn't sure how far but estimates they hiked at least 13 miles.

Along the way, the Tuckers could see where entire neighborhoods had washed down the mountainsides, burying people by the thousands or sweeping them out to sea. "The worst war zone you've ever seen on CNN -- that doesn't even compare," he said. Once at the airport, the couple found American troops had flown in to rescue U.S. citizens. And they soon boarded a United Airlines flight to Miami, Fla. "My company and my government did everything they could to help us get out," Tucker said. "And I'm proud to know that."

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