Man trapped by floodwater describes ordeal

Monday, September 15, 2008 | 10:05 p.m. CDT; updated 11:20 p.m. CDT, Monday, September 15, 2008
The Ford Mustang of Chris Crocker, 23, still remains in Hominy Creek, where it was stranded in floodwaters early Sunday morning. Crocker was able to escape through a window and stand on the roof of the car before it was submerged under water.

COLUMBIA — Chris Crocker didn't know anyone was coming to rescue him early Sunday morning until he saw Michelle Runkle float past and heard her shout for him.

Crocker was hanging onto a concrete bridge in the middle of Hominy Creek where he landed after floodwaters swept his car downstream.

"Whenever I first hit the bridge, I looked over and saw Michelle go through the water. She yelled as she went by," said Crocker, 23, who lives in Columbia and works in Centralia.

"My first reaction was, ‘Why is there another person in the water?'"

Runkle drowned after trying to save Crocker, who held onto the bridge for almost an hour before he was pulled by paramedics into a boat and taken to safety.

On Monday, Crocker rolled up his sleeves to reveal multiple bruises on his biceps and described the ordeal that began when he drove his black Ford Mustang down a hill on Clark Lane into a stream of rushing water.

Crocker said he was heading westbound from the Lake of the Woods Exit off Interstate 70 when he noticed a small sign on Clark Lane that said "Road Closed."

He said he saw no barricades, although Columbia Public Works had placed a pair of barriers on both sides of Hominy Creek late Saturday night. The Columbia Fire Department later said the barricades had been moved.

Seeing just the small sign and what looked like shallow water, Crocker said he thought he could cross the road. He had driven through water coming down Highway Z earlier that night.

Crocker quickly realized it was worse than he figured.

"I had my window rolled down, and when I hit the water, it spun me around a couple of times, and I rolled the window up because water was starting to come into the car," he said.

He tried to force the door open, but because of the pressure of rising water, he wasn't able to.

He rolled the window back down before the electricity shorted out so he wouldn't be trapped, he said.

Finally, he got out and pulled himself up to the car's roof .

"I stayed on top for just a second as the car went completely under the water," he recalled.

"I was in the current and then nailed that golf bridge which was underneath water at the time," he said. "I didn't even know it was a bridge."

Crocker said he was unaware Runkle and Devan Arends, who was driving, had stopped their car and spotted him from the opposite direction. When paramedics from the Columbia Fire Department pulled Crocker from the water, Runkle had already been missing for nearly an hour.

"I was definitely exhausted," Crocker said. "It was the most extreme workout I've ever had holding on for that long period of time, and I was shivering like all get out. It was crazy."

Paramedics took him to a waiting ambulance and then to University Hospital where he was treated for hypothermia and exhaustion.

"They basically got all the wet clothes off me and got me warm, and once they got me warm, I was fine," Crocker said.

Rescue crews later found Runkle's body downstream from Clark Lane where she was entangled in brush on the west side of Hominy Creek, a quarter mile from where she entered the water.

Family and friends remember Michelle Runkle, 20, as an independent woman who was passionate about helping others.

"In school, she would always befriend the kids who didn't have friends and those who had disabilities," Allie Runkle, her older sister, said Monday.

During her 2005-06 senior year at Sturgeon High School, she became president of the National Art Honor Society. She participated in food and art supply drives as well as in children's art clinics, said Amy Owen, Michelle Runkle's former high school art teacher and honor society sponsor.

Michelle Runkle, known to friends and family as "Tippy," planned to enroll in Columbia College in October to study social work.

"She wanted to work with children who didn't have the best home life and help parents who need help with their children," her sister, Allie, said.

Michelle Runkle, who moved into a one-bedroom apartment at The Links in June, stayed up late Saturday night helping finalize the plans for Allie's wedding in the Bahamas. Her future brother-in-law, Devan Arends, was driving Michelle home early Sunday morning when they stopped to help Crocker.

The Runkle family had planned to leave for the Bahamas on Saturday. Michelle Runkle's 21st birthday celebration would have been Oct. 6, and she was supposed to be a bridesmaid in other upcoming weddings.

"You never said goodbye to Tippy that she didn't tell you she loved you," said her uncle, Kyle Burwell.

Her sister said Michelle, a customer service representative at ASIFlex in Columbia, enjoyed art, movies, music and dancing. For holidays, she often handcrafted the gifts she gave family and friends.

Sometimes, others thought she wasn't living in the right era. She loved the Beatles and Marilyn Monroe. She occasionally spoke with a British accent.

"A lot of her artwork was focused on being at one with the world around her," Owen said. "She was a very vivacious person and very quick witted."

Pat Runkle, her mother, remembers how her daughter enjoyed starting debates on the latest issues.

"She liked to walk in a room and bring up a topic she knew would get people stirred," Pat Runkle said. "She loved to tease people affectionately."

"You rarely know somebody like her, somebody so full of life," said her father, Ben Runkle. "You could feel this almost immediately after meeting her."

Owen said Michelle Runkle could have been an actress, with her animated personality, accent impersonations and long, flowing brownish-blonde hair.

"She was not afraid to get up in front of others," Owen said, "and dance at prom when others weren't."

Funeral arrangements are pending.


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