CLEVELAND, Ga. — With water around his waist, one hand anchored to a tree branch and the other keeping his teenage daughter’s head above the swelling drainage ditch, Rhys Terrill knew that a precious link was missing from their tenuous human chain.
Mr. Terrill’s youngest daughter — 6-year-old Cheyene — was somewhere beneath the surging floodwaters brought to the foothills of Appalachia by the remnants of Hurricane Ivan.
A grieving Mr. Terrill agonized over his choice last weekend: Saving one daughter, 17-year-old Laura, left him unable to search for the other. Bouquets of daisies and pink carnations now lay by the large drainpipe where rescue workers found the body of Cheyene, among the youngest of Ivan’s 43 U.S. victims.
“As I was holding on to my oldest, I felt my youngest slipping away from me. But I couldn’t let go of Laura. I thought she would die,” Mr. Terrill said, swollen-faced and sobbing. “All I could think was, ‘Why can’t I dive in there and get my baby?’”
Shown in a photograph peeking impishly from beneath blonde bangs, a kitten in her lap, Cheyene was a plucky bundle of playful energy, said neighbors who saw Cheyene and her four older sisters on the weekends that they spent with their father. The girls lived mostly with their grandmother outside the county, said Jimmy Perdue, Mr. Terrill’s neighbor and best friend.
Neighbors heard Cheyene sing songs she’d made up, and saw her tumbling in the back yard and practicing dance steps with her sisters to the beat of hip-hop music.
When Ivan, by then a tropical storm, swept over northern Georgia late Thursday, little Cheyene treated the first rains as another game. She and her sisters made a boat from a paper plate and launched it down the stream rising in a drainage ditch that ran downhill from their mobile home.
As the downpour intensified, the four girls headed inside. But the flash flood struck too quickly. Ivan dumped more than 4 inches of rain on surrounding White County in less than three hours, said White County Emergency Management Director William Wright.
The ground, still saturated from the remains of Hurricane Frances, failed to soak up Ivan’s rain. The grassy hills of the Buckeye Homes trailer park turned into a river.
Water seemed to burst from underneath the neighbors’ trailers, rapidly rising above the tires of cars and vans. Floodwaters converged on the drainage ditch, rushing through the 3-foot-wide pipe installed beneath a road.
“The water was coming into my cowboy boots. It happened so fast,” said 17-year-old neighbor Andy Meaders. “Water from the rain came down the hill and filled the ditch within two minutes.”
The flood ripped the bumper off a car. It picked up hefty railroad ties lying in Crystal Parker’s back yard. And it sucked Cheyene into the ditch and toward the drain pipe where she had sent her paper boat.
Laura, the oldest of Mr. Terrill’s five daughters, lunged to grab her youngest sister and found herself swept away by the torrent racing for the drain — where water in the ditch reached 4 to 5 feet deep.
Hearing a cry for help, Mr. Terrill rushed outside to find Laura at the flooded storm drain, fighting for breath as her face peeked above the crest and water seeped into her mouth. Mr. Perdue, who lives in the trailer nearest the drainpipe, ran outside to find father and daughter nearly submerged.
With Mr. Terrill, Laura and Mr. Perdue formed a fragile chain — Mr. Terrill held a branch of a small cypress and clutched Mr. Perdue by the shirt, while Laura wrapped her arm around Mr. Perdue’s neck. Laura screamed: “My sister! My sister!”
“I was trying to reach down the pipe to try to get Cheyene, but I just couldn’t find her,” Mr. Perdue said. “She was a little angel — happy-go-lucky, smiling all the time.”
Mr. Terrill and Mr. Perdue dragged Laura from the ditch just before emergency responders arrived at 8:35 p.m. — 7 minutes after Mr. Perdue’s wife called 911, Mr. Wright said.
But Cheyene was still missing. More than 15 rescue workers, mostly volunteer firefighters, searched the murky waters. They found her body an hour later, after the flooding receded.
She wasn’t Ivan’s only young victim. An 8-year-old girl was crushed by a tree north of Pensacola, Fla., and a toddler died in North Carolina when a wall of water smashed a community of 30 homes to bits. A woman who was seven months pregnant lost her unborn child.
At Buckeye Homes, friends gathered Friday outside Mr. Terrill’s mobile home, their eyes puffy and red. The muddy paper plate and one of Laura’s soggy shoes, pulled from her foot by the surge of water, lay beside the flowers left for Cheyene.
All agreed that Mr. Terrill did all he could just to save one of his daughters. All except Mr. Terrill himself.
“It was so strong, I can’t get over how helpless and scared I felt,” he said. “I can’t get over how scared I was.”