Matt Phair tried, but the power of water was too great.
He and his wife, Connie, had saved two passengers from a sport utility vehicle that had become stuck Monday shortly after 9 p.m. in the drainage ditch that runs through Norman Clayton Park and Greentree-Chapel Hill Park on the city’s Southwest Side near their home.
But when the driver of the vehicle, believed to be in his 70s, got out, he slipped and went under the raging water from torrential rains that filled the ditch.
Phair, 41, and another bystander, whose identity is unknown, grabbed the man, but the force of the water made it difficult to keep their footing and hold their grip. The driver slipped away and wouldn’t be found until nearly 13 hours later, 500 yards to the west.
“I knew that if I take a couple steps, I might get sucked under, too, so I knew I couldn’t go any further,” Phair said. “I didn’t want to try to let go of the shirt to grab something else. We eventually held for as long as we could, but the water just overpowered us and he was gone.”
Phair, a teacher in Mount Horeb and a member of the Madison City Council, said he ran to the other side of Chapel Hill Road after the man was swept away expecting him to be flushed out of one of two culverts. The man never appeared.
Members of the Madison Fire Department’s Lake Rescue Team spent the night and most of Tuesday morning dressed in survival suits and using poles, prods and rakes — forming human chains to search the drainage ditch that at one point was more than 8 feet deep. As the water receded, crews again checked the area and brought in a drone from the Madison Police Department. A search dog was on the way, and divers were about to be deployed into a detention pond when the man’s body was found shortly after 10 a.m. at the edge of the pond in Greentree-Chapel Hill Park.
The death is believed to be the lone fatality from a record rainfall in Dane County that flooded intersections, basements and businesses, washed out bridges, created chaos and reinforced the power of water in an urban environment.
“We’ve always said water is very unforgiving and you’ve got to respect it,” said Clayton Christenson, an assistant chief with the Madison Fire Department. “Swift water is an animal that you can never tame. You can’t control it.”
Christenson said the incident is believed to be the first death attributed to flooding in the city in “many, many years.” More than 50 water rescues were performed Monday night throughout the city, including one instance in which a man was saved after he was pulled by firefighters through the sunroof of his car, he said.
The name of the man who died has not been released. The early details of how the vehicle became stuck serve as an example of how quickly rising floodwaters can create confusion in a residential neighborhood.
Laura and Scott Simmerman spent much of Monday night trying to move items out of their basement, which at one point was under 16 inches of water. The Simmermans live next door to Norman Clayton Park at 933 Chapel Hill Road. A paved bike path stands between their house and the drainage ditch.
The heavy rains sent torrents of water not only through the ditch, but over Chapel Hill Road. Some motorists tried going through the water, but others turned around, Laura Simmerman said. When a sport utility vehicle driving south approached the water running across the roadway, it turned east, likely thinking that the bike path was a street, Simmerman said.
“I think they might have thought that bike path sign was a street sign,” Simmerman said. “They took a left right onto the grass and drove right through the park, but the car started to veer on an angle and then they got stuck, so they backed up.”
Simmerman said the driver backed up toward Chapel Hill Road, but the nose of the car was swept into the ditch.
Moments later, the Phairs, who had gone on a bike ride in the rain to check out storm damage in their neighborhood, arrived on the scene. Matt Phair said he saw the water at about window level of the vehicle but thought the SUV was abandoned.
“Of course, when I got there, I saw people,” Phair said. “As I walked down, I realized how ridiculously hard it was to even walk, but I just felt like they needed to get out.”
After yelling at them, a man in his 50s and a woman in her 70s in the back seat opened a door and, with assistance from the Phairs, got out of the vehicle’s left side. The man got out with little assistance, but the woman struggled, went under the water and had to be pulled out of the water by her hair.
The driver got out of the vehicle on his own, but instead of going straight to higher ground, he went back, possibly to help the passengers. He got sucked under the water.
“I think that I and my wife did what I think most people would do,” Phair said. “I’m not a hero. I think it’s just a good reminder that as neighbors and as citizens that we always have to be out and paying attention and checking on people and helping each other.”