DAR Archives: Family nearly washed away, April 15, 1991

Thursday, March 14, 2019
DAR FILE

FAIRDEALING — A Fairdealing family escaped tragedy Saturday night when neighbors pulled them from a rain-swollen creek after their truck was swept off a low-water bridge near their home.

Steve Cunningham, his wife, Pam, and their four sons said they were returning home from visiting relatives about 11:30 p.m. when their 1980 Chevrolet pickup was washed off a concrete bridge at Crawford Creek.

The bridge is on Ripley County Road T-1, about four miles southwest of Fairdealing.

Witnesses said they were in the water for 30-40 minutes before being pulled to safety by Dan Halliburton, Oscar Smith and Kenny Camper, who all live within a half-mile of the creek.

Halliburton, his wife, Lee Ann, and daughter, Dana, said they were horrified as they watched the truck traveling ahead of their own pickup “disappear in just two seconds.”

“I said, ‘I hope they aren’t going to cross,’ but my wife said ‘they’re going,’” said Halliburton. “I knew I wasn’t going to cross it but they were already in the water.”

“The back of the truck sort of moved around and then the front moved over and the whole truck disappeared,” said Halliburton. “They didn’t drive off the bridge, they were swept off.”

PARENTS SEPARATED FROM SONS

The truck floated around a sharp bend below the bridge and stopped in a stretch of the creek that runs adjacent to the gravel road.

“My side went off first. I rolled my window down and started pulling the back sliding glass open but the water pressure sucked me and my wife out the window like a vacuum cleaner,” said Steve Cunningham, the driver.

The four boys remained inside the pickup as their parents were swept more than 200 yards downstream in rushing water ranging from about six to eight feet deep. The truck floated about 40 yards before coming to a stop.

Pam Cunningham said she finally grabbed a root wad and held on for more than a half hour. Steve Cunningham said he was able to pull himself out of the water and up a steep briar-covered bank.

“I can’t swim but it wouldn’t have mattered because nobody could have swam in that water,” said Pam Cunningham.

“I think if I had gone under one more time I wouldn’t have ever come back up because I was so exhausted,” said Steve Cunningham. “I don’t remember how I got up that creek bank.”

CHILDREN TRAPPED

Inside the truck, Chad Cunningham, 13, and his 11-year-old brother Steven, crawled through the back window and climbed on top of the truck. As the cab filled with water, they pulled younger brothers, Charlie, 8, and Josh, 4, on top with them.

“There was water coming in but we still had about that much room to breath,” said Steven, holding his hands about 18 inches apart.

Steven described the ordeal as “scary.” Halliburton called the two older boys “heroic.”

Halliburton said he removed his shoes and waded through fast-running water “that was higher than my knees” to cross the bridge. He ran to the creek where the truck had stopped and saw what he called “the eeriest sight I’ve every seen in my life.”

“There were two little boys on the roof screaming that their mother, father and two little brothers were drowning,” he said. “They were just terrified.”

Halliburton jumped in the water “but it was so swift that I knew it was going to take me away.” He decided to go for help.

“I told them I was going for help and ‘please stay calm and whatever you do don’t get off the top of the truck.’”

“The second time across the bridge was scarier than the first,” he said. “I could feel my feet slipping so I faced the current, bent as low as I could and leaned into the water.”

NEIGHBORS RALLY RESCUE

Halliburton drove about a quarter-mile to the home of Kenny and Dee Camper. He first called an ambulance service in Doniphan then called his next-door neighbor Oscar Smith, who lived about a half-mile away on the opposite side of the creek.

“I woke Oscar up and told him to bring a rope, there were people drowning in the creek,” said Halliburton.

The Halliburtons and Campers went back to the creek, where Dan Halliburton waded across the bridge for the third time to get back to the boys. Kenny and Dee Camper walked down the creek bank to find the missing parents.

Halliburton said when he reached the truck again, all four boys were on the roof and the truck cab was filled with water. He and Smith had them tie a rope around their arms and one-by-one pulled them to the bank.

“The water was over the top of the truck except for a little corner of the cab where the boys were, they were soaked to the skin but those four little guys stayed on top of that truck, they listened and they did what they were told,” said Halliburton.

“When they got the little one out, he cuddled up to Danny and said ‘I love you,’” Lee Ann Halliburton said.

“We thought the parents were dead, so we sent the kids up to Oscar and Tammy Smith’s house,” said Dan Halliburton.

Camper spotted Steve Cunningham trying to pull his wife from the water. He held a light on them while Halliburton made his way down the bank and pulled her out of the water with a rope.

“Steve had took his coat off and passed it down for her to cling to, but it’s a good thing she didn’t let go of the root wad,” said Halliburton.

“I felt sorry for Dan, he was so exhausted I didn’t think he could get her out but he did,” said Steve Cunningham.

All members of the family were safely on the bank by the time rescue personnel, deputies and highway patrol officers arrived, Halliburton said. The Cunninghams went home without seeking medical attention.

“I had rope burns on my hands but that didn’t bother me,” said Pam Cunningham.

Steve Cunningham was nursing some strained ribs on Sunday afternoon while the boys apparently were unharmed.

“Dan had bruises all over his feet and we picked thorns out of his knees,” said Lee Ann Halliburton. “He was wearing a new pair of socks and the bottoms were completely out of them when he got home. I want to keep those socks, though.”

Dan Halliburton said this wasn’t the first time for a car to have problems trying to cross the small concrete bridge, “but it’s the first time we’ve nearly had somebody drown.”

“It’s a deceiving creek,” said Halliburton. “It comes up very fast and goes down very fast. It’s dangerous for people who are new to the area.”

GOD INTERVENED

Halliburton called it a fluke that his family was there when it happened.

“We normally take another road home but my daughter wanted to go this way tonight,” said Halliburton. “If we had been there two minutes later, there is no way we would have seen that truck. It would have been morning before anybody would have found them.”

“They said there were six people in the truck, but I believe there must have been seven (including God,)” said Halliburton. “If you know what I mean.”

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