Jessica Romero called a relative as her car filled with water and sank in a culvert Sept. 8.
“The water is taking me,” she told her aunt.
In the background, her aunt could hear Romero’s 2-year-old daughter, Llaylanii.
“Agua, Mommy, agua!” the girl screamed.
Romero, 18, and her daughter drowned when their car was swept off an access road near East Loop 820 South and into a culvert during a downpour.
A Star-Telegram investigation found that part of the culvert was filled in and replaced with an underground pipe that was too small. It caused water to back up in the portion of the culvert where Romero and her daughter died.
The work was performed without permits from the city of Fort Worth or the Texas Department of Transportation, the investigation has found. No one has admitted responsibility for the work.
Worse yet, the culvert was flagged as a safety concern in a 2016 report by engineering consultants hired by Fort Worth to evaluate drainage systems around Lake Arlington. The report suggested improvements, but no work was done because the culvert was not the city’s responsibility, and the city did not tell TxDOT, which has an easement for the culvert, about the report until after the drownings.
Aerial photos of the area on file with the Fort Worth Department of Transportation and Public Works indicate a portion of the culvert was filled in and the pipe was installed sometime between 2001 and 2005.
A portion of the culvert that was altered was on an easement that belongs to the city of Arlington, which also said it did not approve the work.
TxDOT spokesman Val Lopez said TxDOT did not fill in the culvert or install the pipe and does not know who did the work. The agency became aware the work had been done after Romero and her daughter drowned, Lopez said.
Lawhon Inc. owned the land from 2000 until December 2005, when the property was sold to Whiz-Q Stone, according to city tax assessor records. Lawhon still owns property in the area, which it leases to C&S Trailers.
Mike Whisenand, president of Whiz-Q Stone, said in an email to the Star-Telegram that the work on the culvert was done by the previous owner of the property, but he did not specify who the owner was.
Charles Lawhon, president of Lawhon Inc., initially told the Star-Telegram he did not know anything about changes made to the culvert, but said it is possible the work was done without his knowledge. He said later in the conversation that he did not think his company did the work and did not recall the work occurring.
“There were a lot of different people doing work over there,” he said. “I don’t know who would have been involved.”
Lawhon emphasized that the flooding that occurred the day Romero and her daughter died was unprecedented. He compared it to the recent wildfires in California, saying God “is punishing us.”
“It’s a flood no one could have seen coming,” he said. “No one could have controlled it. It could have had 10 drainage systems, and it would have flooded. It was an act of God.”
Washed off the road
Whisenand, the owner of Whiz-Q Stone, said in an email that before Romero’s death, he was not aware of any other car washing into the culvert during the time his company has owned the property.
“From Whiz-Q’s perspective, this was an unprecedented situation,” he wrote. “Whiz-Q, including every employee, is very saddened by the tragic events of Sept. 8. We continue to send our thoughts and prayers to the Romero family.”
Romero’s car, a four-door sedan, was swept off an East Loop 820 South access road near Wilbarger Street, southeast of downtown Fort Worth. The water had risen more than 3 feet above the street level, and witnesses said waves from passing cars pushed Romero’s car farther into the culvert.
It happened at about 10 a.m. on a Saturday, as Romero was taking her daughter to her aunt’s house before her shift at Joe’s Future Food Mart.
The National Weather Service estimated that 5-6 inches of rain fell within two to three hours in the area where Romero and her daughter died. Fort Worth firefighters and Arlington police reported more than 50 high-water rescues that day.
About an hour after Romero and her daughter drowned, and about a mile away, Eddy Volpp, 69, drowned when his car was swept off South Cravens Road and was submerged in floodwaters.
The Fort Worth Fire Department said Romero’s car was completely underwater within about three minutes of when it was swept into the culvert. Several employees of Whiz-Q Stone had jumped into the 15-foot-deep water to try to save Romero and her daughter.
The culvert where Romero and her daughter drowned drains water from East Loop 820 South into Lake Arlington. About 1,000 feet of underground pipe — 72 inches in diameter — was installed in the culvert from where Romero and her daughter drowned to the lake.
No permits and inadequate drainage
Greg Simmons, assistant director with Fort Worth’s Transportation and Public Works Department, said the city has no record of permits being obtained to install the pipe.
Permits with the city would have been required to do such work, Simmons said, because the fill was placed in a floodplain. According to the city’s floodplain provisions ordinance, the current property owner is responsible for any issues caused by the fill, he said.
Lopez, the TxDOT spokesman, said a permit would also have been required from TxDOT because it has an easement for the culvert.
A 2016 report shows Fort Worth knew the pipe was inadequate to drain the culvert properly.
The 2016 Lake Arlington Drainage Master Plan was completed by Brown and Gay, an engineering consulting firm hired by Fort Worth to review the city’s drainage systems around Lake Arlington.
The plan concluded the 72-inch pipe provided “inadequate capacity to drain the depression before it overtops. The resulting overflow then floods the Loop 820 feeder road and several adjacent commercial properties.”
Brown and Gay suggested the city enlarge the culvert and obtain a drainage easement on the property, meaning the city would have exclusive access to the land. But the firm was not aware TxDOT already had an easement on the property, according to Simmons, of the city’s Transportation and Public Works Department.
The improvements to the culvert were rated “the highest score for safety concerns,” according to the drainage report. The estimated cost for changes was just under $1 million.
When asked how large the pipe should have been to adequately drain water in the culvert, Simmons said he could not “speculate as to what would have been the outcome at the time had a permit been applied for.”
Simmons said the city determined the project was not its responsibility after receiving the report in 2016. He said the city did not inform TxDOT of the report until October 2018 — a month after Romero and her daughter died — because “the drainage issue described by the report at that location is not exceptional and no history of flooding complaints was identified there.”
“Based on the September flooding events the report was reviewed in greater detail and the information passed along to TxDOT as it was observed that it is only their right-of-way that is impacted,” Simmons said in an email.
‘Loopholes’ in the system
Simmons indicated the city is not focused on enforcement against whoever is responsible for the work.
“Our focus is on working with the current property owner to evaluate the situation,” he said in an email. “Consistent with past and current practices, as long as the current property owner is responsive in regards to remediation we do not take punitive actions.”
Steve Cooke, interim director of Fort Worth’s Transportation and Public Works Department, said that without permits, the city can’t prove who built the drainage system.
“There’s no way to determine who owned it when something changed out there,” he said.
Fort Worth’s city manager, David Cooke, did not respond to requests for comment.
“I understand that you reached out to the city manager with some questions about this situation,” Simmons wrote in an email to the Star-Telegram. “I just want to reiterate that we are continuing our evaluation and work with the current owner of the property.”
Clair Davis, floodplain administrator with Fort Worth Stormwater Management, said in an email to Simmons that a portion of the culvert that was altered was on an easement that belongs to the city of Arlington. In the email, which was obtained through an open records request, Davis said it does not appear that Arlington approved the work.
“Both of these issues appear to have happened 12-15 years ago and may have gotten through loopholes in our permitting system,” Davis wrote to Simmons.
A spokeswoman with the Arlington Public Works Department said the city was not aware of the work within the easement until Fort Worth asked about it in September. The spokeswoman said Arlington has no permits on record for the work.
‘Precautionary measures’ taken
The rainfall on the day of Romero’s death qualified as a 50-year event, meaning that amount of rainfall is likely to happen once every 50 years, according to an email from Christopher Johnson, storm water program manager with the Fort Worth Transportation and Public Works Department, to Simmons. The Star-Telegram obtained the email through a public records request.
Lopez, the TxDOT spokesman, said the department builds roads and drainage systems with 100-year flood events in mind. When asked if the original East Loop 820 South culvert followed those standards, he said he was sure it did, but stressed the area where Romero drowned had not flooded for 30 years.
“The issue is not adequate drainage,” he said. “The issue is rainfall. Motorists need to make sure they drive safely in heavy rain or icy conditions. If they encounter high water, they should turn around.”
Soledad Romero, Jessica Romero’s mother, is working with Shelly Greco, a personal injury lawyer, to file a lawsuit on behalf of her daughter and granddaughter. After an interview in which the Star-Telegram presented its findings, Greco disagreed with Lopez’s characterization of the events.
“It’s not just the rainfall, as the drainage systems are supposed to be able to handle even more rainfall than was present that day,” Greco said. “It definitely appears there was a drainage issue, and that these deaths could have been prevented had the drainage been working properly.”
The week after Romero and her daughter drowned, a pickup truck was swept into the same culvert, which again had filled with water during heavy rainfall. The driver was able to escape.
TxDot has since installed a guardrail and flood warning signs along the access road near where Romero and her daughter drowned.
Lopez, the TxDOT spokesman, said TxDOT is also conducting a study to help determine what improvements are necessary in the system.
Lopez said the guardrail and signs are more of a “precautionary measure” because the area does not have a history of flooding.
In early November, Whiz-Q crews worked on the culvert, excavating mounds of dirt. Whisenand, Whiz-Q’s president, said the company retained an engineer to look into the issues with the system.
“Whiz-Q intends to work with the city and TxDOT to do what is necessary to ensure drainage on and through Whiz-Q’s property is adequate,” Whisenand said.
‘Where is she?’
After Romero’s aunt took the call from Jessica Romero as her car sank, she called Romero’s mother. Soledad Romero rushed to the access road — it took her about seven minutes to get there. When she arrived, her daughter’s car was under water.
“I didn’t see the car anymore,” Soledad Romero said. “I could only see the antenna sticking out. I asked, ‘Where is she?’”
Soledad Romero said she yelled that her granddaughter was in the car and ran toward it. Rescue workers held her back as she yelled.
Soledad Romero spoke on the phone with the Star-Telegram this month. Greco, her lawyer, was on the call, as well.
During the interview, Soledad Romero would not discuss liability issues or the lawsuit.
Soledad Romero described her daughter as motivated, strong willed and compassionate. Jessica Romero had a full-time job, was a full-time high school student at Fort Worth Can Academy and took care of her daughter. She wanted to become a pediatric nurse, her mother said.
“She was very independent. She set her mind at something and she did it,” Soledad Romero said. “She helped me take care of my boys growing up. I would come home to a clean house and food on the table.”
Jessica Romero’s daughter Llaylanii “loved so hard,” Soledad Romero said. The 2-year-old, whose name, Soledad Romero said, means “beautiful flower,” always tried to give strangers hugs.
“Nobody should ever have to bury their kid, let alone their grandkid,” Soledad Romero said.
Two silver crosses now stand on the embankment near where Jessica Romero and her daughter died, one with “Llaylanii” written on it and one with “Jessica” written on it in red. They are surrounded with Christmas decorations and stuffed animals. Llaylanii’s cross is decorated with figurines from “Moana,” her favorite movie.
Greco, Soledad Romero’s lawyer, said her firm is in the process of investigating who was responsible for the drainage system’s failure and why nothing was done to fix it, even though the city of Fort Worth knew about it.
“The family approached us wanting answers, and it’s our intention to hold those responsible accountable for their action or inaction,” Greco said.