NEW SALEM It’s hard to make out in the thicket of trees maybe a hundred yards to the north of Highway 218, but it’s there: a Hyundai Elantra, hanging nose down, as if caught in a spiderweb.
By mid-morning Monday, as the sun peeked out for the first time since Florence came in from the coast late last week, the field of soybeans between the road and the strung-up sedan looked as if someone had simply left a sprinkler system on too long.
Fourteen hours earlier, though, the rains had turned normally serene Richardson Creek into a raging monster, water churning 10 feet above those soybean plants and sweeping the Hyundai — carrying young mother Dazia Lee and her 1-year-old son Kaiden Lee Welch — off the road, across the field, and into the trees.
Authorities said Lee and her toddler were traveling from their Charlotte home to visit family in Wadesboro on Sunday night, and that State Highway Patrol had put barricades beyond the intersection at Fish Road, to warn of trouble ahead.
When she got there, “I saw people coming in and out,” Lee told WCNC on Monday. “I was about to detour, but I stopped and I saw cars coming in and out, so I thought (it was OK).”
“I can tell you that the barricades were up there,” Union County Sheriff Eddie Cathey said Monday at a press conference at the New Salem Volunteer Fire Department. “Whether someone else moved those barricades and she drove around ‘em, I can’t say.”
Police said that at about 8 p.m. Sunday, Lee came up to a bridge that crosses the creek, and tried to continue driving, though the road was partially submerged.
The powerful current then swept the car over the flooded field and into the trees, police said. Once it was lodged in place, Lee worked her way out of the driver’s seat and freed Kaiden from his child seat. By that point, most of the car was under water.
“As I understand it, she can’t swim,” Cathey said. “She was able to get out herself, but she couldn’t get her feet on the ground.
“The water was still over her head, and she was just struggling.”
Through sobs, not long after she was plucked from the river, Lee told a reporter for Fox Charlotte: “I was holding his hand, trying to hold him, trying to pull him up. And it got to the point I couldn’t hold on anymore — and he let go.”
Multiple state and local law enforcement agencies — as well as an Urban Search and Rescue Team from Miami-Dade County, deployed by FEMA — searched the water till past midnight, police said. Darkness, and the volume and intensity of the water, thwarted them.
They resumed the search at 7:30 Monday morning, police said.
By that point, the water — which Sunday night had been hundreds of yards wide (Richardson Creek is normally 30 to 40 feet, from bank to bank) — had receded considerably. Evidence of its destructiveness remained: Of three large dumpsters in a parking lot by the bridge, one was still in place and one was a few hundred feet downriver. The third? “We don’t know where it is,” Cathey said.
Closer to where Lee’s car was swept away, a large section of asphalt had eroded in a matter of hours.
This was one of 28 roads in Union County that were deemed impassable and blocked off during the height of the storm Sunday, a county spokesperson said. “I’ve worked this county 40 years,” Cathey said. “I’ve never seen flooding of this magnitude.”
On Monday morning, TV news crews arrived before dawn, waiting for word of young Kaiden. Just after 10 a.m., as a news helicopter dipped low to document the scene, two rescue workers came into view carrying the boy’s body, beneath a white sheet, back through the soybean fields.
As it turned out, Kaiden was right next to the car. The dark and the floodwater had hidden him.
“The child was actually found ... between the bumper of the vehicle and tree,” City of Miami Fire Chief Joseph Zahralban, head of the USAR team, told members of the media. “With the turbulent water and the hydraulics ... the water places a lot of pressure on that vehicle and anything around it. So the child was essentially held down between the vehicle and the tree.”
The ordeal clearly affected first responders.
“As a father myself,” New Salem assistant fire chief Chad Rorie began to say at the press conference, before pausing. He spent several seconds trying to collect himself, and when he began again, his voice hitched. “That’s not something we want to go to any day of the week.”
Cathey reiterated how tragic the circumstances were, while also reminding people to take cautions seriously during severe-weather events. “Driving through water where the roads are closed is dangerous for anybody,” he said. “High water is high water.”
But when a reporter asked whether Lee would face criminal charges if it were found she ignored the barricades, Cathey said it was up to the State Highway Patrol, which would conduct an investigation.
And as reporters and first responders stared off across the field, at the Hyundai on its nose amongst the trees, a few people quietly said that Dazia Lee had probably already been punished enough.