Alone in the Sky, Pilot and Volunteer Saves 17 in Tennessee Flood

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -
This image from video provided by Jeani Rice-Cranford shows Nashville-based helicopter pilot Joel Boyers rescuing people from a rooftop, Saturday, Aug. 21, 2021 in Waverly, Tenn. (Jeani Rice-Cranford via AP)

Nashville-based helicopter pilot Joel Boyers was in the car on Saturday when he received a frantic call from a woman in Pennsylvania. Her brother’s home in Waverly, Tennessee, was underwater and he was trapped on a roof with his daughters. Could Boyers help?

“I thought, ‘How would I feel if I told her I’m not even going to try?'” he said in a Thursday interview. “She just so happened to call the right person, because I’m the only person crazy enough to even try to do that.”

The weather was terrible and Boyers and his guide had to contend with hills and high-voltage power lines on the way to Waverly, a small city about 60 miles (96 kilometers) west of Nashville. Just before reaching the town, he set down in a field to get his bearings and realized the internet was down, making it impossible to pinpoint the house he was looking for. He flew on anyway.

“As soon as I popped over the ridge, it was nothing but tan raging water below me,” he said. “There were two houses that were on fire. There were cars in trees. There was tons of debris. Any way debris could get caught, it was. I knew no one was going to be able to swim in that.”

A few people were out in boats, rescuing the stranded, and one person was helping with a jet ski, but Boyers was alone in the sky. He started flying up and down the flooded creek, grabbing anyone he could.

Boyers, who co-owns Helistar Aviation, said he ended up rescuing 17 people that day. He’s proud of that, but said he’s the one who should be thanking them. “I literally prayed just days before this that God would give me some meaning in my life, and then I end up getting this call,” he said.

He has flown over disasters, including floods, before, but “the cops are usually there, and my hands are tied. This time there weren’t any.”

Saturday’s flooding killed 20 people, taking out houses, roads, cellphone towers and telephone lines, with rainfall that more than tripled forecasts and shattered the state record for one-day rainfall. More than 270 homes were destroyed and 160 took major damage, according to the Humphreys County Emergency Management Agency.

To perform the rescues, Boyers had to maneuver around power lines, balance his skids on sloped rooftops, and hover over floodwaters. It took all the skills learned over 16 years flying, including for a television news station, for documentaries and for country music stars.

At one point, he spotted four people on the ledge of a roof of a farm supply store where he was able to set down one skid, making three different trips to pick them all up. One was a woman who said she had watched her husband get swept away and had become separated from her daughter, who was on the roof of a nearby gas station. Boyers touched down and rescued the daughter too.

At another point, he and his co-pilot saw a house on a rise, surrounded by floodwaters but not yet engulfed. Boyers touched down, picking up two men, and saw a girl in the window who refused to come out. He flew out, dropped off one of the men and Among, and brought the other man back with him to hoist the girl into the helicopter. When he landed again, he was able to rescue the girl and a woman who was with her.

“I’m in a little hole with power lines all around. It takes enormous energy to take off vertically like that,” he said. So he left the man briefly and then came back for him. “I just kept doing that over and over again until I was low on fuel.”

All the time, he knew he really was not supposed to be doing any of this.

“Every landing was pretty dangerous,” he said. He’s already had a conversation with the Federal Aviation Administration about it.

“I know the FAA can take my license away if they see me flying like that,” he said.

He assured them that he did not charge anyone for the rescue, no one was hurt, the helicopter was not damaged, and there were no law enforcement helicopters in the area. After he left Waverly, he stopped at an airport in the nearby town of Dickson to refuel and heard that the state police and National Guard still had not flown in because of the bad weather.

Reporting by the Associated Press.