Location: Houston, Texas
Date: June 26, 1989
On June 26, 1989, Tropical Storm Allison blew into Texas and dropped ten inches of rain in one day. By 7:00 that evening, after the storm had stopped and water was being redirected into Houston's storm drains and bayous, Karen Reese allowed her daughter, Tricia, and niece, Krystal, to play outside in the flooded street. The water didn't look dangerous, but within moments, seven-year-old Tricia was dragged down by a rushing current and sucked into a storm drain. Krystal ran inside and told her Aunt Karen what had happened. Karen called 911.
Firefighters from the Houston Fire Department arrived on the scene with Fire Captain Bob Crenek in charge. One of Crenek's men jumped into the water at the opening of the eighteen-inch-wide drain to see if he could feel anything inside. He emerged empty-handed, saying that if he hadn't been so big, he, too, would have been sucked in by the swift current.
The rescuers also checked for Tricia directly across the street, where water was rushing at forty miles per hour along a drain gutter. There was no sign of Tricia. "I felt so helpless," recalls Karen. "The hardest part was standing there watching them working at that drain. It just seemed so futile because there wasn't anything anybody could do."
A police dive team was called in search the bayou at the outlet of the storm drain. For three hours, a boat traveled the length of the nearby bayou, as men walked up and down the banks. By nightfall there was still no sign of Tricia. Police called off the search until the next day, doubtful she would be found alive.
Early the next morning, before the police dive team resumed the search, Tricia's fifteen-year-old cousin, DeVincent Phillips, set out to look for Tricia one more time. A few blocks from the Reeses' home, DeVincent came across two men who were looking at blueprints. Tim Gabrysch and his partner were checking sewage pipes in the area for storm damage, but DeVincent assumed from the blueprints they might be looking for Tricia. Gabrysch and his partner had, however, heard about the little girl's disappearance over the radio and agreed to help. Although Gabrysch couldn't imagine finding anyone after all the water that had raged through Houston's streets and drains, he agreed to follow DeVincent to the site of the accident. "The first thing that went through my mind," recalls Gabrysch, "was that I'd rather not find anyone than find a dead little child."
By now, the flood waters had receded enough for Gabrysch to climb down the nearby manhole. He aimed his flashlight down the length of the large pipe and was stunned by what he saw. A little girl was huddled in the pipe. Tricia had clung to the wall of the three-foot-wide drain for thirteen hours, and she had survived. Gabrysch called out to her, but she was hesitant to come out. "I want my mama," cried Tricia. Gabrysch replied that her mama had sent him and he was going to take Tricia to her.
Karen heard the news and ran down the street to meet Gabrysch and Tricia. She swept her daughter into her arms and both of them cried in joyful reunion. Gabrysch was elated and shocked that Tricia had escaped her ordeal unscathed. "You could have another million people fall in like Tricia and I don't think any would live like she did. I don't know how she held herself against that current."
Since the accident, the city had installed grates at the opening of the drains. Tricia stills plays outside, but now she stays in her backyard. "I play in the back because I can still remember what happened," she says. "I missed my mommy. And my hands, they were wrinkled and all white. They weren't like my human hands."
Karen says that everyone in the family always protected Tricia more than the other kids because she seemed so frail. Not anymore. "I tell Tricia, you went down that drain yourself and you came out of it okay yourself. So don't tell me you can't do anything by yourself because you've done this," says Karen. "Thank God he gave her that miracle."