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Anniversary of 1985 flood brings tragic memories, strengthens bonds

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ROANOKE (WSLS 10) - Many who grew up in southwest Virginia remember the deadly flooding of 1985 - also known as the Election Day floods.

Days and days of rain preceded the torrential rains of November 4, 1985, setting the stage for what would turn out to be one of the most memorable and tragic days in the Roanoke Valley's history.

Photos from the flood

Thirty years have passed, but a man who lived through it remembers like it was yesterday. Tommy Firebaugh was at work as he frantically watched the waters rise.

Firebaugh described helping Roanoke Wiener Stand employees to safety during the flood.
Firebaugh described helping Roanoke Wiener Stand employees to safety during the flood.

"The rain was coming down so heavy," Firebaugh remembered. "It's like someone was pouring buckets of water out and I knew that we couldn't last very long."

At the time, no one could have imagined the devastation that would occur by the time the last drop fell.

After he and his co-workers were told to evacuate, Firebaugh made his way to the back ally, walking on rails to keep himself out of the water. Finally, he said he made his way to his car, which remained untouched by the rising flood waters.

"And at that moment I'm thinking that something is going to happen downtown and it would be an opportunity to photograph it," said Firebaugh.

Firebaugh's photos line the walls of the Roanoke Wiener Stand.
Firebaugh's photos line the walls of the Roanoke Wiener Stand.

Firebaugh went home for his chest waders and camera and began documenting the flood. Many of the photos of the historic flood of '85 came from Firebaugh's camera. Those pictures line the Roanoke Wiener stand, documenting the chilling moments he helped save workers from rising waters.

He ventured downtown, first stopping at the Mill Mountain overlook.

"It was an eerie sound because there was dead silence with the exception of helicopters rescuing people," said Firebaugh.

Downtown, flood waters took over the market and flooded the Roanoke Wiener Stand.
Downtown, flood waters took over the market and flooded the Roanoke Wiener Stand.

One the market, water was invading the Roanoke Wiener Stand.

"And I noticed there was a piece of wood that was hung in their door. I tried to remove that and help them out and when I did, water just rushed in," Firebaugh explained.

Firebaugh and workers at the stand rushed into the back room and climbed onto counter tops as they waited for the waters to recede.

But for those who lived through it, pictures aren't needed to relive the horror.

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Tinker Creek & E.J Thomas' store

Tinker Creek is just a step above a trickle on the 30-year anniversary of the flood, but Roanoke City Police Officer Jay Michael siad he remembers the raging river it became during the flood. Officer Michael went to Orange Avenue with the intent of diverting traffic away, but he found the creek was already coming up and over the bridge.

Officer Jay Michael recognized the people who had retreated to the top of E.J. Thomas' store didn't have much time.
Officer Jay Michael recognized the people who had retreated to the top of E.J. Thomas' store didn't have much time.

"The rain was relentless it just continued on," Michael remembered. "Vehicles were attempting to turn around and go back east on orange avenue and at that time I observed the flooding carrying debris and so forth across the way to E.J Thomas' store."

That's he saw Eric Johnson. Johnson's father, and others who had been working in the store, climbed onto the roof for safety.

"There's a big drink box in the back that supported. I said maybe we should go over here it will be safer. Dad said 'no we're staying right here.' Two minutes after I said that, that end of the building broke off and went down into the water so dad was right again," Thomas explained.

"I was trying to stress the importance of getting somebody in here, otherwise they were going to perish," Michael said.

E.J. Thomas' store, now the home of a Little Caesars , was swept away by the flood.
E.J. Thomas' store, now the home of a Little Caesars , was swept away by the flood.

Officer Michael said crossing the street to try and rescue them was impossible. A helicopter would have been the only way. Finally one came.

"The copter got back and, with God's help, we all got on there, and about 90-seconds later the rest of the building came down. For God to put everyone where they were for Jay Michael to be the policeman on the hill to call in and emphasis how much trouble we were in. He's the real hero for doing that," Thomas said.

Painful memories and lifelong bonds

When it rains hard enough, the memories of that deadly day come roaring back for these survivors.

"It's always there. It's always there when I hear a helicopter come in," Thomas said.

And the heavy rains this past September hit close to home.

"When we had all of that rain, certainly that brought back memories from the flood. Thank God it didn't materialize, but it brings back memories," said Michael.

"I was thinking, 'man thank goodness it went to the east cause we were primed and ready," Firebaugh said.

Eric Thomas and Officer Jay Michael became lifelong friends after Michael helped rescue Thomas and this father from the flood
Eric Thomas and Officer Jay Michael became lifelong friends after Michael helped rescue Thomas and this father from the flood

But with all that bad came some good. Jay Michael and Eric Thomas knew one another before the floods, but November 4, 1985 solidified a life-long bond between the two.

"For sure, Jay. I wouldn't be here today if it wasn't for him," Thomas explained.

Since 1985, the City of Roanoke has constructed a flood reduction project. Roanoke City engineer Phil Schirmer said the project preformed well during the heavy rain in September, but cautioned the project can't hold a flood like the one that occurred back in November of 1985.


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