"And Then They Came..." (Chapter LXXV)
Michael desperately searched for Jeannie, but he could only see the dark water rising, now up to about two thirds of the inside of the overturned van.
Then she burst into the surface, holding awkwardly by the collar in each of her hands one of the wounded men.
For a moment, she stumbled, fighting to get a foothold under her and keep the two men afloat. Then she seemed to gain her balance, and looked up through the passenger window at Michael, nearly invisible in the pitch black darkness.
“Hold on!” he shouted through the open window. “I’ve got you!”
Coughing, splashing, and several times slipping and going underwater, Jeannie strained every fiber of her being to move towards the opening above her.
Finally, Michael leaned through the van's window, and grabbed Ojeda under the arms.
Grunting, he hauled up the unconscious security man, and deposited him on one side of the minivan.
When he returned, he saw that the water had continued to rise, and that Jeannie could barely clear its surface while holding on to Lucas. Despite that, she managed to drag him closer to the window, until Michael was able to reach him and pull him out.
Michael quickly came back for Jeannie, only to find that except for a couple of inches between the door and the window, the current had flooded the rest of the van.
Jeannie’s face bobbed up and down in the water, while she clung to the open window frame..
She stretched a hand upwards, and Michael grabbed it, hauling her out of the overturned minivan.
Gasping and retching, Jeannie knelt and tried to recover her strength. Momentarily relieved, Michael hugged her.
The wind was starting to pick up again, and rain was beginning to fall in increasingly heavier droplets.
“We can’t stay here,” Michael said to Jeannie, and as if to confirm his words, the minivan slid further with the current, rumbling and finally stopping when it ran into the bridge's concrete barrier—now completely underwater.
Sliding to Lucas, Jeannie hugged him desperately.
“We’ll be swept by the current!” she said to her brother-in-law.
“We’ll have to swim for it,” Michael replied, knowing that plunging into the current while trying to drag the two unconscious men would probably end up in everybody drowning. “We can’t stay here__”
He stopped suddenly, as he thought he heard a voice shouting at him.
The rain had increased, and as he searched, he almost missed the dim figure of a man standing by the raging stream on the opposite side of the shore.
The man stared at them for a moment longer, turned around, and ran away, swallowed by then torrential rain.
“Hey!” Michael shouted after him, standing up and waving his hands. “Heyyy! Get some help!”
But if the stranger heard him, he did not come back.
Michael crawled back to Jeannie.
“There was a guy…” he explained. “But I don’t know if he saw us or if he will help us,” he told her. “I’m so sorry I got us into this mess.”
Jeannie shook her head. “It’s not your fault. You’ve done everything that could be done.”
The wind continued to increase, as did the volume and power of the downpour.
“We have to go now, before the hurricane gets stronger. I’m going down the back of the minivan to see how strong the current is. I’ll be right back.”
Michael slid to the end of the Caravan, and slowly lowered his legs until they touched the water.
Immediately, the current swept them to one side, and snatched away his right shoe.
It was too strong, he thought. If they tried to swim for it, they would be carried away by the raging river. To make matters worse, Jeannie and him would each have to hold on to or carry one of the wounded men while trying to stay afloat, a truly impossible task. Alone, they could try to let the current sweep them, while swimming diagonally towards the shore. But to do that, they would need to use both of their arms, and they could get tangled by the submerged branches and debris covered by the dark, rushing water.
Scared, Michael returned to the back of the van and looked towards the road ahead. It was barely discernible in the inky blackness of the stormy night, but it seemed to him that they were separated from solid land by some twenty feet.
Half crouching, half kneeling, he staggered back to Jeannie.
“Listen,” he told her. “The water is too high. We can make it to the other side, I think, but we can’t take both Lucas and Ojeda with us. We can only take one between the two of us, and even that will be very hard.”
Jeannie stared at him in shock. Already, the wind had begun to whistle through those parts of the minivan’s exposed undercarriage, and was whipping her hair over her face.
“What are you saying?” she shouted through the noise and the wind, uncomprehendingly.
“We have to leave Ojeda behind, concentrate on Lucas,” Michael responded bitterly and without any evasion.
“Listen to me! We can’t save the two of them! We can only try to save one, and my money is on Lucas!”
“No!” Jeannie shook her head strongly.”No! He’ll die!”
“We’ll all die if we stay here or if we try to carry both of them in the water!” Michael protested. “The hurricane is gaining strength. If we don’t get out of here, we’ll be swept away, either by the current when we try to cross with them, or with the van, when the current sweeps it away.”
“Then we’ll be swept away,” Jeannie responded heatedly, refusing to heed Michael. “Lucas would never leave Ojeda behind. Ojeda risked his life for us!”
“And his sacrifice will be wasted if we all die. I’m sure, if he was conscious, that he’d be the first one to tell us to save Lucas and leave him behind.”
“And we wouldn’t,” Jeannie replied, admitting no further contradiction. “Lucas wouldn’t.”
A bitter pause followed, as Jeannie and Michael refused to give in.
“Listen,” she said at last, in a calmer voice. “You’ve done everything you could. This is it. Save yourself. Leave while you can. At least try.”
Michael stared at her in utter shock.
“I’ll never leave you guys. You know that.”
He sighed, his mind exploring every alternative that he could think of.
“Okay. This is what we’ll do then. I’m going to try to get to the other side. I’ll look for something that we can use to grab on to, and bridge the gap between the minivan and the road.”
“But if you find nothing, promise me__”
“I will find something. I swear that I’ll be back. I swear it.”
Jeannie considered his brother-in-law’s solution, and then nodded tentatively.
Slowly, carefully, Michael stood up and looked ahead. The back of the minivan was hardly visible, and the swelled stream roared past them, now completely invisible in the night.
The current near the overturned minivan was too strong. Without something to hold on to, he’d probably lose his footing and be carried away by the fast-moving current.
There was only one chance. He would have to move quickly, and hope for the best.
Walking as much as he could toward the front of the van, he looked at Jeannie and tried to smile reassuringly.
“Stay where you are, okay?” he told her. “I’ll be back.”
Michael sprinted toward the rear of the Caravan, propelling himself at the last moment from its edge and jumping forward.
His leap carried him over half of the swollen, rushing stream, before he crashed into the water below with a big splash. The current covered him completely, but he touched the asphalt below it with his hands and his toes.
For one terrifying moment, he struggled to get back on his feet, managing to do so for one second but again slipping into the water.
But then he regained his footing, and stumbling drunkenly in the same direction of the swelled river, he managed to reach the other side of the road.
When he looked back, he saw that between the wind and the current, he had been carried away several yards from the minivan, to such a degree that he could not even see it.
Rushing back toward the submerged bridge, he finally caught a glimpse of the overturned vehicle. Everything was so dark, however, that he could not spot Jeannie and the others.
When he had jumped, she had lain on the Caravan holding on to the two wounded men, with an arm around each other. If the raging river had not already swept them away, he knew that it would just be a matter of time before it did.
To make matters worse, the wind had almost regained its full strength, and periodic gusts threatened to throw him off his feet.
Michael turned and began to search for anything that would bridge the gap between the minivan and the road.
After a few seconds, he saw a road guardrail that had been separated from its ground supports.
But it was too heavy and too short. After several failed attempts to lift it, he gave up and continued to search for something else.
Like a madman, he reeled toward the sidewalk the street’s commercial establishments lined the avenue, looking for something to use. A faint emergency lamp, its battery running out, cast a dim yellowish glow over the sidewalk.
Most of the stores were still covered by metal and plywood shutters, which he was unable to pry away with his hands.
But then he came upon the yellow awning of a bakery. It had been torn away from all but one of its support points in the wall, and hung diagonally from the last one, most of its canvas shredded apart.
Michael was about to walk past it, when he noticed that the fabric that had been wrapped around the awning’s front metal tube had been partially ripped away, and that the tube hung limply, separated from the rest of the awning’s frame.
Hoping against hope, he grabbed one end of the tube and pulled it. To his surprise, it started to slide through the fabric that held it.
Michael began to walk away, holding on to the tube, until it slid off completely from the shredded canvas and began to scrape the floor. It must have been some thirty feet long, long enough to extend from the end of the road to the overturned Caravan.
He headed back to the minivan, dragging the tube, moving as quickly as he could.
By the time that he reached the flooded canal, Fay had regained its deadly strength, except that its hurricane force winds were now blowing in the opposite direction they had blown during the first part of the storm.
Michael found it almost impossible to stay on his feet.
He frantically searched for something heavy to anchor the end of the tube to the solid ground not covered by the water.
Fortunately, there was a tree stump in the median near the flooded bridge, close enough to extend the tube from it to the minivan.
He dragged the tube to the stump, placing one end so that the tree would stop it from sliding in the direction of the current. Then he grabbed the tube’s opposite end and, walking towards the overflowing channel, tried to extend it all the way to the rear of the Caravan.
His first attempt failed. The moment the tube touched the water, it was deflected by the raging stream. Michael quickly raised it, and tried again with the same result.
Lifting the tube over his head, he carefully strode to the edge of the current and slowly began to walk into it. The renewed hurricane winds were blowing in the opposite direction of the rushing water, and that helped him to keep his balance, at least until the swollen torrent reached his knees. Then he began to totter and lose his balance, and had to back up abruptly.
Nevertheless, he was able to see that the rear window of the minivan had shattered. That would make it easier for him to slip the metal tube through broken window’s frame.
However, the two times that he tried to extend the metallic pipe all the way to the rear of the upturned vehicle, the tube had begun to curve downwards and had been deflected by the current.
Knowing that the chances of saving the others trapped in the van dwindled with every passing second, Michael raised the tube a third time over his head, and aimed it at the broken window. Then, with a deep throated shout, he sprinted towards the Caravan, hoping to thread the tube through the open space before he was swept away by the overflowing stream.
Michael kept his eyes on the pipe until the water covered him completely, and then held on desperately to the tube, hoping it had threaded the window.
For a couple of seconds, it seemed as if the current would pull him away. But then the metal pipe held, locked between the van’s rear window frame and the tree stump on the opposite side.
Still holding on to the tube, Michael pulled his head out of the water, and slowly made his way to the Caravan’s back end, climbing over it.
He found Jeannie still holding the two unconscious men, her eyes closed, the unrelenting rain blinding her. Already, a thin veneer of water was starting to cover most of the side of the van.
Michael slid next to her, startling her.
“I’m back!” he shouted triumphantly. “We have to move fast if we’re going to get out of this place! There’s a metal tube extending from the back of the van to the solid ground beyond. Hold on to it, and I’ll carry Lucas, then come back for Ojeda.”
Jeannie looked at him with surprise and a little distrust.
“Take Lucas. I’ll stay here with Ojeda. Otherwise, he may get blown off the roof by the wind. I’ll leave when you come back.”
Michael stared at her with uncertainty.
“Go!” she said. “Don’t waste any more time!”
Michael grabbed Lucas and began pulling him towards the back of the minivan. He let his brother-in-law’s feet dangle from the rear, and searching for the submerged metal tube, climbed down.
Then he pulled Lucas to him, and slid over each of his shoulders his brother-in-law’s arms, so that the two men faced each other in a tight embrace.
Not waiting any longer, he began to move through the fast moving current, holding on to the metal tube with both of his hands, narrowing his arms so that Lucas would remain pinned between them.
On one occasion he slipped, and both men momentarily disappeared under the water. But Michael pushed himself and Lucas back up, and continued to move towards the opposite shore.
It proved to be very difficult going.
Michael had to carry the combined weight of the two men, while being pulled away with unrelenting violence by the surging stream. It took every ounce of strength in his body to hold on to the extended metal awning tube, pausing twice to pull up Lucas with one hand as he began to slip from his shoulders.
Finally, after a span of about five minutes, Michael staggered to the other side, and placed Lucas on the ground, next to the tree stump anchoring the pipe. Exhausted and breathing very hard, he fell on his knees, trying to recover.
A few seconds later he walked back the stream, discovering to his horror that the water had already topped the van by about an inch of water. Jeannie was holding on to Ojeda with one arm, while grabbing the upper edge of the minivan with the other.
Gripping the metal tube, Michael rushed back into the current. It felt stronger, but he was not carrying Lucas, and made quicker progress back to the van.
“I’m here!” he shouted to Jeannie, as he slid to her side. “Now listen. You’ll have to climb down from the minivan on your own, since I’ll be carrying Ojeda. There’s a tube sticking out of the back window. It’s under water, but you can reach it with your arms. Grab it and use it to get to the other side. Got it?”
“Yes,” Jeannie said nervously.
“Move! I’ll be right behind you with Ojeda,” Michael assured her.
Letting go of the wounded bodyguard as Michael grabbed him, Jeannie began to slide toward the rear of the minivan.
The side of the overturned vehicle was barely visible when she got to the rear, and the tube to which Michael had referred to was nowhere to be seen, covered by the the overflowing water. Holding on to the edge of the van, Jeannie plunged her left arm into the current, and in her second try, grabbed it.
For the last time, she looked at Michael--who had dragged Ojeda next to her--and then she dropped over the rear of her van, grasping the submerged tube with both of her hands.
Just then, the Caravan shifted, its rear sliding a couple of feet in the direction of the current. Afraid that the vehicle would slip into the deeper part of the canal, Michael maneuvered Ojeda into the same position that he had previously used with Lucas, and quickly slid over the edge.
Ojeda was lighter than Lucas, but Michael was exhausted. However, shoulder to shoulder, he made slow progress toward the safety of the open road.
Barely able to hold on, Jeannie nevertheless kept on moving away from the minivan.
She would have made it all the way to the shore, had not a partially submerged metal drum struck her left shoulder.
Jeannie screamed as she was ripped away from the tube, and carried away by the water. Not hesitating, Michael let go one of his hands, and grabbed her by her right arm.
“I’ve got you!” he shouted anxiously, while simultaneously trying to hold on to both the tube and to Ojeda with his other hand.
It was too much.
The current had increased exponentially in speed and volume.
He clasped Jeannie’s arm with all of his strength, while she clung to his wrist with both of her hands.
But it was evident that Michael could not pull her back to the metal tube with just one arm. To make matters worse, Ojeda started to slip from his shoulders, threatening to go under at any moment.
“I…I…need you to pull yourself up towards me,” Michael told her.
Jeannie tried, and for a managed to reach midway up his arm. But then she slipped, and Michael nearly lost his grip on her.
“I can’t,” she said, with calm finality. “I can’t. I’m going to let go, and try to make it to shore.”
“No! You’ll never make it!” Michael protested.
“It’s better this way,” she told him. “That way you can save yourself and Ojeda.”
“No!” he shouted in a panicky voice, feeling that the arm holding on to the tube would be torn off its socket. “There must__”
But suddenly, the pressure in the water eased, and with a huge effort he pulled Jeannie back to the tube.
Only then did he realize that the rear of a huge truck, an Army truck, had slid into the water parallel to them, and was deflecting part of the current with its side.
“Hold on!” someone shouted. “We’ve got you!”
Two men tied at their waists with ropes and wearing floatation devices jumped into the water, and one of them grabbed Jeannie with both of his arms, while the other took Ojeda away from Michael.
Two sets of arms extended from the side of the vehicle.
Michael stretched one of his arms and was immediately grasped by one of the men, then managed to hold on to the other.
“Don’t worry, buddy, we’ve got you!” one of the men shouted. Then the man turned to his companion and said, “Whew! He’s a heavy one!”
(CHAPTER LXXVI WILL BE POSTED ON MONDAY, JANUARY 11)