Tennessee Lineworkers Rescue Motorist Trapped in Rising Floodwaters

A Tennessee woman who was trapped inside her pickup truck by rushing floodwaters is hailing electric cooperative line crews as her heroes after they rescued her from her nearly submerged vehicle.

Mountain Electric Cooperative lineworkers Rick Courtner and Cody Bryant swung the bucket of a co-op truck to free Cathy Souder of Laurel Bloomery in northeast Tennessee after a mudslide and a tree pushed her pickup off the road and into swirling floodwaters earlier this month.  

“I am just fortunate to be here today. They saved my life,” Souder told local reporters.

Courtner, Bryant and Mollie Ingle, a Mountain Electric meterperson, will head to the state capitol in Nashville later this week, where Tennessee House Speaker Cameron Sexton will honor them. 

Officials said Souder’s truck washed 300 yards downstream before becoming lodged in the middle of Laurel Creek, which was swollen by several days of rain so heavy that the Tennessee Valley Authority was forced to use its 49-dam network to move water down the Tennessee River to minimize flooding.

“I was on a service call at a house where the accident initially happened and just saw a [downed] tree at first,” said Ingle. “I called 911 but at that point I didn’t know there was actually a vehicle in the river until a neighbor came out and told me.” 

Ingle directed traffic with help from a bystander and contacted co-op crews for assistance when she realized that first responders’ communications equipment wasn’t getting a signal.

Courtner and Bryant rushed to the scene with lineworkers Dakota Tester and Charlie Grindstaff in a large bucket truck—a wise decision that paid off.

“I didn’t know what size truck we needed when Mollie called,” said Courtner. “[Fire and rescue crews] had requested a small service bucket, but we were unable to contact the service guy who drives it.”

The line crews placed the vehicle along the edge of the water, where the bucket’s 60-foot-reach just barely reached Souder and her truck. From inside the bucket, Courtner and Bryant were able to reach Souder and pull her to safety.

“She was sitting on the driver’s side of the vehicle and was actually very calm. But you could see the fear in her eyes,” said Courtner. “I talked to her, and she had to crawl out through the window. We got her to stand up on the edge of the door and then we pulled her into the bucket.”

 “She was clinging to Rick,” said Ingle. “Everyone there was so happy.”

Paramedics took Souder to a local hospital where she was later released without any injuries, according to an official at the Johnson County Sheriff’s office.

The co-op crews said the rescue was all in a day’s work. But Joseph Thacker, Mountain Electric’s general manager, said the crews’ selflessness and quick-thinking likely saved Souder’s life.

“It was a very serious situation, and emergency personnel had limited options due to raging water,” said Thacker. “Our lineworkers put themselves at risk every day to serve our communities. This is Mountain Electric at our best.”

Victoria A. Rocha is a staff writer at NRECA.