Nine-Year-Old Amber Colvin Rides Out a Killer Flood in Ohio

updated 07/02/1990 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/02/1990 01:00AM

Dennis and Karen Colvin had no reason to worry when they pulled out of the driveway of their home outside Shady-side, Ohio. They were just making an evening run into neighboring Bellaire, three miles away, to do some shopping, and Amber, their 9-year-old daughter, was safe in the living room, playing with her friend, 12-year-old Kerri Polivka. When the Colvins reached town, though, a driving rain was beginning to fall. Dennis, a 47-year-old dispatcher for the Ohio Power Company, called Amber from a pay phone and told her to disconnect all the appliances because of the thunder and lightning. Amber, who was playing cards with Kerri, reassured him that all was well.

Soon, however, the two girls began to feel terror. A night of flash floods had begun, bringing devastation and death to the hilly coal-mining corner of eastern Ohio by the West Virginia border. The Colvins' basement was inundated, and soon the girls were ankle-deep in water in the living room. At Kerri's suggestion, they got into the bathtub for protection, but within minutes the surging waters broke down the bathroom door and swept the tub from the floor. "It took me so far up I bumped my head on the ceiling," Amber recalls. "Kerri said she was going to die, and I said, "Kerri, keep going.' She said, 'Jesus, please stop this from happening.' "

When the two girls pressed their hands against the ceiling, it gave way, and they were flung out into the full fury of raging Wegee creek, which normally trickles just 30 yards from the Colvins' door. As the tub splintered into pieces, Kerri was hit on the head—and was lost. "I tried to save her," says Amber, who was thrown clear of the bathtub and into the roiling waters. "I saw her hair and tried to grab it. I pulled it up, then I had to let go." Amber then lunged out, grabbed a floating log—and clung to it all the way down the Wegee and into the Ohio River, 1½ miles away.

"I went under twice," she says, "once when the house went and the second time when I tried to save Kerri. I swallowed water and choked. I was thinking I was going to drown. I was thinking there was no hope for me to live." Once she survived the millrace ride to the calmer Ohio, though, Amber realized she had a chance. She floated for seven miles more, at times dozing briefly as she gripped the log for eight hours, until it drifted ashore around 6:30 A.M. near Route 7. Amber managed to flag down Randy and Mitzie Ramsey of Bellaire, who were driving to Shadyside to look for a missing relative. "Amber was cold—but real alert and talkative," says Mitzie. "I told her I thought she was a mermaid, and she giggled."

By that time, more than five inches of rain had fallen. At least 21 people were dead, more than 230 houses had been washed away and millions of dollars in damage inflicted, as Wegee and Pipe creeks had suddenly risen 25 feet, swelling into a 25- by 200-foot-wave that swept through the river valley around Shadyside. When Dennis and Karen, 45, had tried to drive home the night before, they had been stopped at a police roadblock. The Colvins then walked down a hill untouched by the flood that stood behind their rented two-bedroom home, only to find the house had vanished, torn away by Wegee's waters. "Denny and I just held each other," says Karen. "Right there, I thought, there's no way. I thought she was dead," says Dennis. "Somebody was looking out for her, that's for sure."

The Colvins, now living with Dennis's mother in Bellaire, are struggling to put their lives back together. "We're going to get another house and start from scratch," says Dennis. "I have a halfway decent job—and I have Amber. I'm more fortunate than a lot of people." Their joy is tempered, though, by the Polivka family's loss. Shortly after her ordeal ended, Amber had said: "God didn't want me to die yet. But He must have wanted Kerri. He probably needed her up there." Early last week, as Amber talked to reporters at her grandmother's house, word came that Kerri's body had been found not far from the Colvin house. With that, Amber covered her eyes with her hands and began quietly weeping.

—Michael Neill, Ken Myers in Shadyside

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