ST. HEDWIG, Texas – Lawrence Padalecki Jr. expected an emergency the morning of Oct. 14 following a night of heavy rains near the St. Hedwig area. He was up early, waiting for a call to come in.
That call came just a few minutes before 7 a.m. as a report of a high water rescue from a vehicle.
Crews were prepared for such a call, but this would be far from routine.
“It was just one of those things that, you know, you never think you would see or have to deal with,” said Padalecki, the assistant fire chief and operations manager of Bexar County ESD 12 and a native of St. Hedwig.
Padalecki was not surprised to learn that Martinez Creek had swelled beyond its banks along Graytown Road. Everything after that was unexpected.
“You just heard the kids screaming, and you heard the father screaming,” he recalled.
“Only thing you saw were the taillights,” Padalecki added. “And the taillights were up in the air.”
And so were the people he was about to rescue.
“The one girl was hanging onto the tree by herself, and then dad and other girl were on another tree,” Padalecki said. “(The father) kept saying, ‘My daughter, my daughter.’”
That’s when first responders learned a child was missing. They hoped that she, too, had been able to get out of the car and was somewhere along the shore.
As first responders searched, Padalecki spoke with the father and realized the taillights sticking out of the water belonged to someone else.
Padalecki estimated the vehicle was in roughly 20 to 25 feet of water. He remembers the current racing that morning, so a colleague tethered him to shore, and Padalecki jumped in upstream to make his way to the car.
“I was able to climb on the car, and the trunk was open. I climbed on top of the car, opened the back door, and the little boy and little girl just came climbing out,” he said. “They had, you know, 12 to 15 inches left in the car. They were probably standing on their tippy-toes on the seats to keep their heads above the water.”
Padalecki likened their quick, panicked movements to stay afloat to fire ants climbing up his arms.
Then, the little girl told him, “I don’t know where mom is.”
First responders then knew there was also a woman missing. In total, one adult and four children were rescued.
The woman and the 5-year-old girl died in the water, trapped in the two vehicles.
“We still beat ourselves up because we didn’t get to save everybody,” Padalecki said. “Yeah, we saved the five, but we still lost two. So it’s still one of those things where it’s hard knowing that you didn’t get to do everything.”
Later that same day, the body of the little girl, Alyssa Layman, was recovered.
Conditions were too dangerous to recover the body of the woman, Esther Conde, from the second vehicle. Rescuers would have to wait until the next day when the water receded.
As Padalecki and first responders shared those details in a press conference, he fought back tears, saying, “It shouldn’t have happened.”
He spoke at a vigil for Alyssa Layman days later.
“We all come together. We all stick together to all heal together to be able to get through this,” he said.
The rescue and recovery along Graytown Road were not the only high water rescue crews were called to that morning.
Padalecki remembers one time he rescued a driver who went beyond two sets of barricades and got stuck.
There were no barricades at the low water crossing along Graytown Road that morning, an issue raising questions.
Despite the answers, Padalecki hopes the events of that morning that left two families and his hometown reeling will be enough to stop the next person who thinks about driving through water.
“Don’t chance it. Second guess yourself,” he said. “Even if you’re thinking about it, just second guess yourself and don’t do it.”