Last Monday was first day of fall semester class for Dixie State, but Kaleb Hatch and Andrew Kendell were finding it hard to focus.
The small-talk topic of the day was the Sunday night storm that hit St. George, and that’s not a surprise. Torrential rains and booming thunder on Aug. 23 marked the first storm, and really the first sighting of rain, St. George had seen in months.
The storm caused massive flooding around St. George, submerging cars, opening sinkholes and ruining apartments that students had just moved into less than a week earlier.
“People were talking, ‘oh that was a crazy storm last night,'” Kendell said. “Nobody knows what’s going on and how bad it really was.”
Hatch, Kendell and their third roommate, Tobin Esplin, all described the devastation they saw Sunday night as the flooding rose quickly through their apartment complex on South 1000 East, across from Dixie State University.
The three began helping people in their complex move belongings to safety. Hatch said the water rose up mid-chest to his 6-foot-3 frame.
What they described was a difficult scene. It also could’ve much been worse had they not been present.
Esplin, Kendell, Hatch and freshman Mo Tuileta’s actions saved the life of a Dixie State freshman late Sunday night.
“Our reality kind of sank in a few different times,” Kendell said. “We kind of looked at each other saying like, we’ve probably witnessed someone die.
The calm before the storm
The three roommates all saw Sunday’s events through similar eyes, and it all started with the three of them trying to have some fun in the rain.
“We were having a regular night,” Hatch said. “One of my buddies actually has a skimboard, so we were trying to like do some skimboarding out in the street where there was water coming down.”
The last time it rained consistently in St. George was back in April, and the rain was exceptionally welcome after an extremely dry summer.
The rain began around 8 p.m. Sunday and continuously got heavier until it began to die down around 10:30 p.m.
“I actually got swept off my feet myself, and ended up banging my knee up pretty good,” Esplin said. “That’s when I kind of realized where it’s going to be a problem for people trying to cross the road or anything that’s underneath the water.”
Citywide, the damage had already begun and officials began warning residents by alerts and social media.
“We have a lot of urgent things going on outside in this community,” SGPD Officer Tiffany Atkin said via Facebook Live Sunday, urging residents to stay away from quickly flooding streets.
In a matter of minutes, the weather went from stormy to severe, almost becoming too much for anyone to handle.
“All of a sudden it went from playing in the rain to a matter of life and death within probably 15, 20 minutes,” Kendell said.
Saving a life
After realizing the rain was becoming too severe, Esplin, Hatch and Kendell went back to their complex to find people coming out of their apartments with bags of clothing, personal belongings and other items.
That’s when the three began helping others move their belongings out. They live on the second floor and knew their things would be safe.
As they helped, Hatch noticed the water kept rising, and Esplin had the idea to turn off the electrical breakers to potentially keep electric currents from getting into the flooding waters. Esplin said he didn’t want to take the chance of people getting electrocuted.
The three helped get residents and their belongings to safety for a few hours, and after they finished Hatch said he heard yelling from across the street.
He recognized it was Tuileta, as the two are teammates on the Dixie State football team.
“He started screaming for help that there was a young lady stuck underneath the car,” Hatch said. “The water was coming down so strong that she was caught underneath and completely submerged in the water.”
The three roommates went over to Tuileta. Hatch, Tuileta and Esplin tried to lift the car, a Toyota Forerunner, while Kendell found the woman pinned underneath the car’s back left tire. He tried to pull her free as the three tried to lift the car.
Hatch told Kendell to grab the woman, but he couldn’t pull her free. In order to save her life, they needed to physically lift the car.
“He looked at me and he said, ‘Hey, can’t get her. I can’t get her. She’s still stuck,'” Hatch said. “At that point, that was when we knew things were really, really bad.”
That’s when Kendell looked up and saw a fire truck down the road. The truck was stationary, which told him they could potentially help.
“I just remember looking and I saw the fire truck probably about a block up,” Kendell said. “I guess something in my mind said go get them because we were screaming for help, yelling for help and no one else was coming over to us.”
Kendell took off up the road, stumbling in the running water, but he made it to the firetruck and waved it down. Meanwhile, Hatch, Esplin and Tuileta were still trying to lift the car.
As the firemen made their way to the car, a few other bystanders joined and finally lifted the car. The woman came to the surface, but wasn’t breathing and was completely unconscious. The firefighters took the woman and left.
By the time they were able to get her free, it had been at least four minutes. That was four minutes they knew she was trapped underwater. Then came the hardest part: everything was out of their hands now.
“I just remember sitting out in the corner — me, Tobin, Kaleb, Mo and a few other people — just trying to figure out, just trying to process what just happened,” Kendell said.
The trio spent three to four hours helping everyone move their belongings out of their apartments. That timeframe paled in comparison to trying to free someone trapped underneath a car.
“I don’t know how long it took, but it felt like it took ages,” Esplin said.
Hatch sat on the corner with a thousand-mile stare as the rain kept coming down and pondering the situation. Esplin said he still thought about it at work this past week. All they could do after the firemen took her to the hospital was play “what if.”
What if they had found her sooner? what if they were able to lift the car sooner? what if they waved down first responders first?
“I was thinking to myself, I couldn’t pull her out,” Kendell said. “Like, what if I was able to pull her out? I was hoping and praying that she made it.”
The three did the only thing they could in order to keep their mind from trailing too far as the rain started to subside: head back to the apartment complex.
“To kind of lessen the trauma and lessen what happened, we just continued to help people,” Hatch said. “Bucket water out of their homes, and just try to help save whatever we could of their belongings.”
‘Help others whenever they’re in need’
The following day brought the best news: She made it.
The woman was alive at the hospital, and their efforts to save her answered that “what if” game: They arrived, lifted the car and got help just in time.
What the three roommates did is grounds for praise. But, the three of them don’t want any extensive honor for what they did.
They’ve even been described as “heroes,” something Hatch, Kendell and Esplin don’t really agree with.
“I’ve heard that a few times,” Kendell said. “But, I just feel like just a normal guy who is in the right place at the right time.”
“Being called a hero is something that’s an honor and it’s awesome,” Hatch said. “But, it’s just something that I’ve been taught to do from a young age; always to help others whenever they’re in need.”
“I don’t think of myself as a hero,” Esplin said. “I just think of myself as someone that helped someone to be able to move on with their life.”
That wasn’t the first time Hatch and Tuileta have been given the chance to help someone who needed it, either.
Earlier in August, during a team meeting atop the Dixie Rock, the DSU football team helped a women who had her hair caught in her rappelling equipment. This is why what Hatch and Tuileta did Sunday night doesn’t surprise their head coach.
“These men have stepped up in these situations and didn’t really flinch,” DSU coach Paul Peterson said. “If you’re a guy that’s looking for opportunities to serve people, there’s going to be stuff that presents itself. Are you going to step up? I’m really proud of my guys that they have.”
All four stepped up during one of the direst moments of the past month in St. George. They might not have mentally gotten past the moment yet, but time can heal that wound.
Whether or not they consider themselves heroes, Esplin, Kendell, Hatch and Tuileta saved a life without even thinking twice.
“It really seemed like it was one of those things where you really didn’t know what was going on,” Kendell said. “Then in a matter of minutes, you’re saving someone’s life.”
Follow Chris Kwiecinski on Twitter @OchoK_, and contact him at CKwiecinsk@thespectrum.com, or (435) 414-3261.