Ellicott City flood rescue: Man explains selfless act

Posted at 11:02 PM, Aug 01, 2016
and last updated 2016-08-01 23:02:05-04

Jason Barnes was in the process of losing plenty — his car, his new business — when he put his life on the line, too.

Barnes was standing Saturday in a torrential storm and watching the worst flood in memory in flood-prone Ellicott City, Maryland, in what was quickly becoming one of the worst nights of his life.

He had just fled his store, All Time Toys, his lifelong dream, as it filled with water. He spotted his Mercury Grand Marquis floating with other cars down Main Street.

Just as suddenly, Barnes’ thoughts weren’t focused on his store, his car and his future.

He saw a woman trapped in a car that had washed down the street and now was stuck and being battered by water cascading over its top and hood.

“I’m not a strong swimmer,” 29-year-old Jamie Knight told CNN affiliate WJZ. “So I was really afraid of getting washed down the street.”

Barnes plunged into the thigh-high water, trying to battle his way to the car, a bystander capturing the selfless act on video.

“I just emptied my pockets and went out there to see if there was something I could do,” he said. “There was someone in danger.”

Barnes, a good-sized 36-year-old, didn’t get far — and came close to dying himself. The water knocked his feet out from under him and sent him 20 or 30 feet down the street.

“He was swept away — he could have died,” the man who shot the dramatic video, David Dempster, told WJZ. “This guy is a hero.”

Barnes regained his footing. He came back to try again.

This time, Barnes and fellow shopkeepers made a human chain; one man anchoring himself by a storefront and grabbing hands with another, allowing Barnes to get close to Knight.

But not close enough — there was still several feet of space between Barnes and the car.

Knight, who was leaning out the window, appeared fearful of leaving the vehicle. Rescuers shouted she had to get out; otherwise she would likely drown.

Barnes took another plunge, letting go of his link in the chain, and he nearly got knocked off his feet again. He regained his footing, and made his way to the car and embraced the victim, lifting her out of the car.

His partner, who had retreated momentarily, returned and grabbed Barnes’ outstretched hand, allowing Barnes to carry Knight to safety.

It all made a very bad day, a good one. When asked about it by CNN, Barnes deflected the hero label. “I didn’t think there was anything special going on,” he said. “You do what you need to do to help someone.”

Hero now has to focus on rebuilding dream

There are a lot of people who need help now in Ellicott City. It may be affluent — median household income is $116,000 — but that doesn’t mean every shopkeeper in its famous historic downtown is wealthy.

Barnes bought the store after working there for years, when the previous owners got out of the business. He saw the purchase as the fulfillment of a dream — and a big step toward getting a piece of the American Dream in the town of 65,800, about 12 miles west of Baltimore.

He wouldn’t even have been there to be the hero except he turned his car around in the downpour to go back to ensure his inventory was safe.

The store backs up to a creek, so flooding is always a concern. Within two hours, 6 inches of rain reportedly fell, which is nearly double the normal rainfall in the county for the entire month of July, according to state figures.

In the store’s basement, Barnes saw the merchandise — much of it for the eBay sales — was off the floor, and he figured it would be safe.

Barnes quickly realized he was wrong. He saw water leaking through the back door from cracks 4 feet off the ground. The door burst open as he was climbing out of the basement, he said.

“It just blew in,” Barnes said. “The water just pushed everything in. It went from about 3 inches of water to probably 3 feet in a matter of seconds.”

The businessman got upstairs and went outside to where his fellow shopkeepers were watching — and filming cars — floating down Main Street. He saw his Mercury washing down the road.

It was a bad sign. He had closed on the business June 1 and bought the 1997 car — “I love the old Grand Marquises” — a month ago.

“I threw everything I had into this to get things rolling,” he said. “And two months later it’s all floating down the river.”

Community has his back

Now, Barnes said, he is on the recipient end of the good graces of others. His bank has already reached out to him, and he says the outpouring of support from the community has been overwhelming.

That gives him peace of mind.

“It’s been absolutely amazing to watch this community pull together,” he said. “It’s you know, pretty rough. I lost my car, lost my shoes, lost my business, but it will come back.”

The one thing he learned when his wife and three children saw the rescue video that went viral on news outlets and social media was they didn’t want to lose him.

His wife looked at him and yelled first: “Don’t ever do anything like that again.”

Then his 4-year-old daughter piped up: “Mommy said, ‘Don’t do that again.’ Don’t do that again!”

The video indicates Barnes is a man who might have trouble not running to help. Fortunately for family peace, there probably won’t be another time he has to wade through a flood to rescue someone in a car.

But if there is, he will probably delete any videos.