For 11 hours this week, Fort Worth firefighter Raymond Forester fought Central Texas floodwaters and despair that he might have lost his wife and daughter.
Forester, his wife, Debbie, and 11-year-old daughter Sydney were swept away from their campsite beside the Guadalupe River early Wednesday morning, caught by a storm that dumped 12 inches of rain in the area starting Tuesday night.
Separated in the water, Debbie and Sydney Forester were rescued by firefighters, current and retired, but Forester was pulled miles downriver, finally saved by a boater trying to secure his craft in its slip.
The family was back home in far west Fort Worth on Thursday night.
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"I can't say how much I appreciate all the people along the way that got us to where we are," said Forester, a firefighter for 32 years. "Everywhere down the road, God had his hand in this."
Looking for lifelines
About 4:30 a.m. Wednesday, he said, the family was in a trailer on the bank of the Guadalupe River near New Braunfels.
"It had been raining all night," he said. "Something bumped us -- it was a picnic table that floated into our trailer.
"I got our family ready because the water was already up to the wheel wells."
The family tried to walk out, but his wife and daughter got pinned against the truck by debris. After freeing them, Forester looked upstream and watched trucks, trailers, ice machines and other debris being swept away.
Then their truck was caught by the current.
The family got in the bed of the pickup and rode it until it began to sink. Then, Forester kept his family afloat by grabbing inner tubes, life vests, empty propane bottles and other debris floating on the river, he said.
"I found two life vests and put one on Sydney and one on Debbie," Forester said. "I never found one for myself. I told Sydney, 'Don't let go of that tube, no matter what.'
"The first tree hit me, and Sydney and I got separated. But then I got her back, and then the second tree we hit, we got separated again.
"I never saw her again after that. She disappeared in the darkness."
Forester later learned that his wife had reached an abandoned store and crawled on top of a counter until she saw firefighters -- from New Braunfels, she later learned -- and called out to them.
Craig Kneuper, 47, a retired firefighter from Colorado, rescued Sydney about five miles downriver. His family was moving their belongings upstairs, trying to protect them from the flood, Kneuper said.
His wife yelled that a child was in the water.
"I jumped in and grabbed onto her, then struggled to get her onto our deck," he said. "We were swimming against the current and getting pummeled by firewood coming from my yard.
"I was trying to reassure her that we were going to be OK, and that I was not going to let her go. I was probably holding her so tight she got a bruise."
Once Kneuper pulled Sydney from the river, his family evacuated the house. The family called 911 to report that Sydney was safe. Sydney got a hot shower and dry clothes at his parents' house, where police reunited her with her mother, Kneuper said.
"The miracle is that her mom and dad were both found safe," Kneuper said. "I'm just happy to have played a small role."
Forester floated on picnic tables, inner tubes and other debris. Finally, after yelling out to several people he saw on the river banks, a boy heard him and shouted to his father that a man was in the water, Forester said. The man got into his boat and pulled him in, and then dropped him at a friend's house downriver, about 32 miles from his campsite.
Forester was taken to a San Antonio hospital and kept overnight for observation. Debbie and Sydney Forester had only minor injuries.
"I've been on breathing treatments for the past two days," Forester said. "I got some water in my left lung. My arms, legs and eyes were cut up a little. I lost my truck and my trailer.
"But it doesn't matter. I didn't lose us. Everything else can all be replaced. We can't replace us."
MITCH MITCHELL, 817-390-7752