FLAT GAP (AP) — They roam the banks of the swollen creek, looking for those who were lost when a flash flood ravaged this rural eastern Kentucky community. They battle swarming mosquitoes and snake-infested creeks, piles of rubble 10 feet tall and mud so thick it sucks the shoes off their feet.
For two days, rescue crews have trudged door-to-door across this rugged Appalachian terrain, painting orange x’s on each structure they search. Hope is fading for the families who are watching them work.
“You talk to them and they say, ‘Right there is where my house used to be,’” said Randall Mulkey, a firefighter from a nearby county who volunteered to help with the search.
He’s seen homes splintered into rubble, others split in half and cars strewn in places he never could have imagined. Tromping through the mud is exhausting, he said. It breaks his heart to see people’s belongings — clothes, toys, photographs — among the wreckage and know they lost everything they had.
Three are confirmed dead and another man is still missing. The fates of four more remain uncertain. Families reported them missing, but they may have escaped safety or could be stranded in their homes, without power or phone service, police say.
Kevin Johnson believes his 34-year-old son, Scott, is dead, but his body has not yet been found.
Scott Johnson was last seen wading through rushing floodwater with his 74-year-old grandmother on his back.
He had already guided his father, uncle and sister from the raging flood that inundated their cluster of trailers. He turned back one last time to save his grandmother, whom he called Nana, and a 13-year-old family friend.
“We told him, ‘You can’t make it,’” his father recalled. “He said, ‘I’m going to get her out of that trailer.”
Standing in a cemetery on a hill overlooking the creek that had swallowed his son, Kevin Johnson was so overcome with grief he sometimes struggled to speak. He had watched his son push the boy to safety in the branches of a catalpa tree and hoist his Nana onto his back, only to be swept away.
“Scott wouldn’t turn her loose, that’s why he died,” said Veronica Marcum, Scott Johnson’s sister. Her brother had been a musician. He went by the stage name Scott Free, started his own hip hop record label and released an album in 2013 called “Welcome to Hollerwood.” He wrote on his website that he tried in his music to capture the Appalachian spirit and the struggle to survive amid the grinding poverty and drug addiction that has long tormented his native state.
The grandmother he tried to save, Willa Mae Pennington, was found dead Tuesday among debris from the family’s shattered mobile homes, Johnson County Coroner J.R. Frisby confirmed.
Herman Eddie May Sr., 56, was also killed. His daughter, Amy Akers, said they lived next door to each other. When the water started to rise, he got in his car to search for a safe passage away. He reached the top of the hill and turned back to retrieve his daughter and two grandchildren. A neighbor begged him to stay on dry land. But he refused, Akers said.
“He always said he would die trying to protect his family, and that’s exactly what he did,” she said.
The car stalled in the rising water and May, a retired truck driver, got out. A neighbor threw him a rope, but a floating truck plowed into the car, he lost his grip and the water carried him away, Akers said. Neighbors pulled him from the water, but it was too late.
The body of a third victim, 22-year-old Richard Blair, was found Wednesday afternoon on a creek bank in a pile of tree debris downstream from the rubble of a broken mobile home, the coroner said.
The arduous search, destruction and death wore on rescuers.
As the water receded, a crew found a car upside down and partially submerged in the creek. Flatwoods Police Officer Justin Stevens, helping in the search, stood on top of the car as they called for the jaws of life to tear it open and see if anyone had perished inside. But the car’s owner arrived just in time, and told the crew it had floated there, unoccupied, from her home a mile away.
“Thanks for not being in it,” said Stevens said. “We really didn’t want to see that.”
Seven cadaver dogs were aiding in the search, which stretches more than 8 miles from the town of Flat Gap south to Staffordsville — an area with 500 homes and 1,200 residents about 120 miles east of Lexington, police said at a news conference. Authorities estimate more than 150 homes were destroyed.
Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear declared a state of emergency, giving local officials immediate access to state resources to assist in recovery efforts. Lt. Gov. Crit Luallen toured the destruction Wednesday and called it “gut wrenching.”
“I think all of us who are here and who have seen this in person recognize this as a truly devastating natural disaster,” Luallen said. “People have lost everything.”
Families returned to the ruins of their homes to try to save what little they could. Church groups and others passed out sandwiches and water, neighbors banded together to clear heavy debris and police said they hoped there still might be some happy endings.
Johnson County Deputy Sheriff Terry Tussey spotted a Chihuahua, alone and trembling, pacing a pile of debris on the other side of a creek.
“She was dancing like she wanted to come across the creek but couldn’t do it,” he recalled. He trudged through the muck to find a safe crossing. Then he coaxed the little dog to him and cradled it back to his car. He drove around the afternoon with the tan dog in his lap, looking for its owner.
A shelter was opened at the Paintsville recreation center, though many displaced residents turned to families and friends. Some who lost everything said they felt lucky to be alive.
Robin Cisco sifted through the remnants of her daughter’s trailer, digging her grandson’s clothes and toys from the mud and rubble. The family barely got away: Her daughter ran from the trailer with her 18-month-old son as the storm hit and water started rising.
“They got out and they’re OK, that’s all we were worried about,” Cisco said. “All this other stuff can be replaced.”
Associated Press writers Claire Galofaro and Rebecca Reynolds Yonker in Louisville, Kentucky, contributed to this report.