Hurricane Agnes
The Davis Rescue of 1972

by John Thomson

[This article was published in the July 1972
edition of the Sycamore Islander.]

Flood waters on the Potomac are receding fast -- and by the time this Islander gets out we will be digging out, sorting and salvaging. And swapping tales of the incidents of the Flood of 1972. The myths and legends of our times will begin to merge with those of 1936 and 1942. I thought there should be an account of the rescue of Frank Davis from the Island.

It all started on Wednesday night, June 21. Frank Davis checked the rate at which the water was rising -- very slowly at 6:30pm -- and went in to watch television and turn in early, as he always does. The river for that hour was normal, even low for this time of year. I noted as I drove home over Chain Bridge that evening (I only drive -- when it rains in the morning), that it was remarkable that, while the local streams into the Potomac were in flood, there was no appreciable impact on the river itself.

Frank's sleep was shattered about midnight by a phone call from Frank Brisebois who had been watching television and doing some intensive calculations. "Get off the Island immediately," he told Frank Davis. "Don't wait to pack, don't wait for morning!" Frank Davis, I gather, was reluctant -- but Frank Brisebois was adamant. There was no time for fooling around.

About 15 minutes later we got a call. I was asleep and my wife Peggy took the phone: "This is Davis ...." He said he had called his son-in-law and that he was leaving the Island because Mr. Brisebois had insisted. He wanted me to know that the Island would be without supervision. By this time I was awake and muttering. Brisebois was an alarmist. The river couldn't be that high. But, better safe than sorry. I called Davis back and said I'd meet him at the ferry.

When I got outside, dressed in shorts, tennis shoes and rain gear, I became more concerned. I hadn't realized how hard it was raining. The jeep needed gas, and I spent the first ten minutes looking for a station that was open -- and then launched on the adventure. Over at the Sycamore Store I met Frank Davis's son-in-law and we hiked down through the rain to the ferry landing. Conditions were wild (Frank Brisebois was not an alarmist) and the water was already over the top steps on the landing, lapping at the planks leading to the towpath steps. The lights were on at the Island and we shouted back and forth. It was clear, however, that Frank Davis should not attempt to cross the channel alone at night. We hiked up the hill wondering what to do next. We called Davis on the Island and then went to the Glen Echo Fire Station.

At Glen Echo we met Captain Tappan of the Fire Department and Lieutenant Turner of the Montgomery County Police, both of whom figure prominently in this saga. We told them that Frank Davis was on the Island and that the water was too high for him to come across along at night. We asked them what they would suggest. They (just as we) had no warnings of high water on the river. They were glad to know that Davis was on the Island, and would keep him in mind. The best thing for us was to go home and go to bed. We called Davis -- and went to bed.

I slept fitfully, I must admit, and got up around 5:30am. I called the Glen Echo Fire Department -- and found that the County Police had arranged for a helicopter lift for Davis, but that it hadn't come yet. I called the Island and found that Frank was waiting for the helicopter -- and had been since 4:30. One of the great assets of our venture was that the phone continued to work throughout the crisis and we could keep in touch. There was nothing I could do that I could think of, but I told Frank I'd be right along -- to lend moral support.

I got to the Sycamore store just as the biggest helicopter you ever saw was perched (and roared) over what was left of Sycamore -- a small hillock completely filled by the clubhouse. I rushed to the bank to watch the pick-up, but couldn't see a thing. The down-blast from the propellers was so strong that it turned the trees surrounding the house into a sea of waving branches. (This is one serious drawback to a helicopter rescue -- the down-blast can be as destructive as the storm. The helicopter could find no channel through the tree limbs to reach Frank Davis -- and gave up. As it flew away I asked Lieutenant Turner, who stood by through the whole affair, "What next?" and found that Mr. Davis was back in the hands of the Glen Echo Fire Department and their rescue boat. I volunteered my services, noting that as a whitewater canoeist and a Sycamore Islander I knew these waters well. My first offer was politely rejected: Lieutenant Turner suggested that someone "younger" and "perhaps in better shape" would be needed.

After much hemming and hawing it became clear that the rescue would have to be handled by the Rockville Fire Department's boat. Glen Echo's boat was tied up rescuing people from Beech Drive in Rock Creek. While the Rockville Rescue boat and gear was being carried down the path, across the foot bridge and down the steps, I waded down the towpath and swam out to check the state of the ferry cable, and figured out various possible routes for the rescue. The Rockville fireman in charge of the boat handed me a life jacket and said he'd like me to come in the boat to the Island.

The rescue boat, superbly equipped for safety on lakes and other flat water, clearly could not handle the current with the size of its outboard motor. We planned to cross the channel, hand-over-hand, on the ferry cable. I was somewhat surprised at the extent of caution exercised -- beyond safety. We attached a bow cable (which I approved) from the boat to the ferry cable. (In doing this I got in a good swim, as at workfests.) Then we attached a stern cable (which worried me) to the ferry cable. Finally we attached a safety line from the stern of the boat to the men on shore -- in case we broke the ferry cable or lost our grip. The stern cable was the first to become intolerable. It forced us to run directly across the current, putting the greatest possible strain on the ferry cable, and on the boat's balance and stability. I shouted in concern and, early on, this line was dropped. This allowed us to ferry across at a reasonable 30 degrees to the flood. The safety line, despite its increasing drag, could be tolerated until we were almost across the channel. Then, increasingly, the pressure on the line made it impossible to make any headway toward the Island. Again I shouted that we had to let go the line -- and the Rockville man in the stern hung the safety line on an old cable which crossed the channel below us. From there on it was easy. All obstacles were normal -- the chains of the Sycamore Clipper, the mulberry branches and the like. We were able to move easily and quickly to the brick walk in front of the club house.

As we landed, Frank Davis came out of his apartment, every inch the great grandfather he is. He had on his dark felt hat, with rain cover, a suit and tie, dark raincoat and, to complete the picture, hip boots. He carried his suitcase in the right hand and a paper bag in the left. The firemen, recognizing his seniority, treated Mr. Davis with the deference which was his due: "Mr. Davis, step in carefully .... We'll take your bag for you, sir.... Do sit in the middle seat, here sir." They were great.

The trip home was uneventful, except when we waited to clear the safety line from the cable and except when we stopped to avoid a floating tree (or a part of one). We reached the towpath vicinity and then paddled, and waded, to the steps to the bridge over the canal. Police and firemen took Frank Davis's suitcase and package -- and his arm -- and escorted him up the familiar steps to the George Washington Memorial Parkway and a warm police car.

We were left with the problem of getting the Rockville boat home. One of the firemen, and I, took it up the canal to Lock 7. I was interested in how handy whitewater lore remained -- "Head for the Vee of smooth water, that's where the channel is deepest." We had an easy trip except where fallen trees interfered. At one point, just before the lock, we were faced with a complete barrier, a tree across the whole canal, We solved the problem grandly, as we would have in a canoe, by simply sliding the boat over the log -- and proceeding.

The final phase of the Davis Rescue Mission is prosaic. He and I had to figure out the route from the Sycamore Store to Hyattsville. We succeeded with some difficulty which came from either lapses in attention and memory or from flooded roads.

The final portion of this article is a preliminary report on conditions on the Island. Mark and Marion Schlefer and I paddled across the ebbing flood on Sunday, June 25 to assess the damage to the Club. It was surprisingly limited. The Clubhouse came through with minimal, or at least superficial damage. It is structurally as sound as ever. Our master builder, John Loehler, who is currently in Florida, should take a bow. On one wall the clapboard has been torn away and a good deal of the ground floor has been badly eroded.

Mr. Davis' apartment is a disaster area. The water rose at least five feet inside his rooms and the mud and sludge is thick. On Monday morning Peggy and I made a second trip to the Island and salvaged most of Frank's clothes for the laundry and the cleaners -- the rest of the gear can be repaired or replaced.

Our canoe shed survived remarkably. Chained as it was to two of the great old trees of the Island and filled with flotation (in the form of canoes), it floated on the flood, rising and falling with the waters. Apparently most of the canoes stayed inside the shed. Of those which slipped out of the shed, most appear to be lodged in the flotsam and jetsom at the foot of the Island.

Our tool shed turned end to end and upside down. It seems intact, however, with most of the tools still inside. Our floats for swimming and canoeing rode out the storm well. On the less optimistic side, it appears that Charles O'Brien and Gritt Wagner's cabins were completely demolished in the flood. On the other hand, Bob Andrews' house looks completely untouched. Our ferry line and cable both parted and it appears that the steps on both sides of the channel have disappeared, The ferry itself is probably hanging in the end of the cable.

There's a lot of work for all of us.

* * * * * *

Were the Davis Rescue to have occurred today in 1985, I have no question but that I would consider the preferred rescue craft to be a 17 foot canoe in the hands of an experienced whitewater paddler. Even thirteen years ago two such experienced paddlers -- Tom Yanoski and Ted Waddell -- paddled from Anglers' Inn to Sycamore on the crest of Agnes -- and proceeded to rescue an number of our free-floating canoes and tie them into the trees at the foot of Sycamore..

A second observation concerning Sycamore and Potomac River floods, relates to Ruppert Island. One of the reasons Sycamore has survived so well for the past 100 years is that Ruppert Island serves as a breakwater and Sycamore, by and large, rests in a relatively secure eddy.