30 years later: When the Guadalupe River turned deadly
Flash flood along the river claimed lives of 10 children outside Comfort
COMFORT, Texas – It has been 30 years since one of the worst tragedies to ever strike the Texas Hill Country. On the night of July 16, 1987, just outside Comfort, the kids at Pot O’ Gold Christian Camp were settling in for their final night of the retreat, while 30 miles up the Guadalupe River, at the other end of Kerr County, a complex of storms would turn what had been a sleepy river into a deathtrap.
Fast forward to 2017, and just a few blocks away, downtown Comfort draws people in looking for small town charm. On a recent morning, many drove past the camp and few clues showed what happened.
That fateful Friday morning in 1987, the final bus and van carrying the kids along the road that parallels the river, trying to escape the ensuing flood, was hit by a wall of water.
Ten of the 43 campers never made it across.
A report released by the National Weather Service in New Braunfels said, “The group was at exactly the wrong place at exactly the wrong time.”
READ MORE: Survivor shares her story of survival, faith
In the predawn hours, camp leaders made the decision it was time for the nearly 300 campers to leave. Kids from Seagoville Baptist Church in Balch Springs, near Dallas, had spent the week at the camp.
As the campers prepared to leave just after 7 a.m., overhead was news helicopter pilot Mike Rice. He had gotten the call early that morning about flooding in the Hill Country.
“It was a storm that cooked up over Kerrville and Comfort, Center Pointe and Hunt, those areas, and just stayed there and rained like crazy,” he said.
Rice said everything looked normal, he made a few passes around the camp and continued northwestward to Kerrville.
Roy Harris, the camp’s caretaker, led the way in his truck. He would tell investigators when he started driving across Hermann Sons Road he did not see any water, but had approximately 18 inches of water under his truck by the time he has driven almost 300 yards. Behind him was the final bus, driven by assistant pastor Richard Koons and behind that was a van.
The bus stalled and trapped the van behind it. With seconds to decide what to do, Koons told the kids to get out of the bus, link together and try to make it across the rapidly rising river.
Without notice, and not moving along river's path, a wall of water from an old “historic channel” hit the stalled vehicles from the left.
VIDEO: Paul Venema: 'It was a chilling experience,' veteran reporter details what it was like to cover the flood of 1987
''The van began floating and then we got out and it started sinking,'' Jeremy Morris said during an interview with The Associated Press. ''Kids were screaming and everything. We got out of there and the kids were holding hands in a line.''
“A few seconds earlier and they escape the worse of the flood wave,” the NWS report said. “A few seconds later, and they see the floodwater(s) and don’t drive into them.”
Rice said that within minutes of the bus being taken over by water he was hailed down by a police officer from Ingram, who told him there were kids in the water who needed help.
“I expected to see a bus half in, half out,” Rice said as he once again flew over the camp. “There was nothing. Then as we got really close, we could see five kids clinging to a tree top. These are 75-foot trees, but there is only 15 feet of tree sticking out of the water. There is another group of seven or eight on another tree, four or five in the river. There is nothing that prepares you for something like that.”
One of the many responders that day was Luther Vanlandingham Jr. He is now a reserve deputy for the Kendall County Sheriff’s Office but was a full-time deputy in 1987.
“It was just a loud rushing noise,” he said when he saw the river for the first time that day. “I have never seen the river that high before … Unbelievable how fast it was going.”
Rice remembers much of that day, including the many efforts to save a teenage girl.
“We spotted a girl in the river, right in the middle. Little girl named Melanie (Finley),” he said as he recounted the three times he tried to save her before his helicopter ran low on fuel. Finley was finally rescued by a DPS helicopter, only to fall to her death as they carried her to dry ground. “I am sure she was worn out by then, she just could not hang on any longer,” Rice said.
Within two hours, more than a dozen DPS helicopters and other first responders had descended on the river to save the campers, many who clung to trees
As the rescue became a recovery, Vanlandingham Jr. and other KCSO deputies had the gruesome task of searching the riverbanks for those who died.
“We did a ground search on the river from Comfort all the way to Sisterdale Crossing, over a number of days,” he said. “We were looking for clothing. Any personal items that might identify any of the victims.”
Both men still carry the memory of one victim in particular, John Bankston Jr., 17.
“He was able to help multiple of his friends,” Rice said. “Get them off a tree (or) out of a river and onto a bank. And he did it again. And again. And again. One friend was in a full cast, a full leg cast, and he was able to get him out of the water. A huge struggle to do that. He went back a final time and never came back.”
"It is frustrating. He was considered a hero and saved some kids,” Vanlandingham said.
A year after the tragedy, a memorial plaque was erected at the entrance of Pot O’ Gold. It bears the names of the kids who were on the bus that day. More changes came years later, when the Texas Department of Transportation demolished the old river crossing. Now, the Hermann Sons Camp Road rises at least 15 feet above the water and out of the river’s lowest flood plain.
With all things old being new, Comfort is no longer the sleepy town of three decades ago. Lining High Street are antique stores, wineries and distilleries. Tourists from all over now flock to the town, hoping to find another version of Boerne or Fredericksburg — without so many out-of-towners — of course.
But one thing remains, though the visible scars have faded, for those who were there the impacts of July 17, 1987, carry on.
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