She realized something was wrong Saturday night when the creaking sound outside her second-floor apartment grew louder.
Kelly Secret didn’t know it yet, but she and her boyfriend were trapped. On one side of their building, a creek had flooded, and on the other, a torrent of raging brown water was devouring the historic downtown of Ellicott City, Md.
“The whole house shook,” she said. “We thought we were gone.”
In just two hours Saturday night, more than 6 inches of rain fell in the town about 14 miles west of Baltimore, an event so extraordinary that the National Weather Service said it should, statistically, occur there just once every 1,000 years.
“It looks like the set of a disaster movie,” Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman told The Associated Press. “Cars everywhere, cars on top of cars, parts of the road are gone, many parts of the sidewalk are gone, storefronts are completely gone.”
Kittleman said the devastation was the worst he’d seen in 50 years living in the county, including Hurricane Agnes in 1972, which caused a river to overflow its banks.
One of two fatalities in the storm was a Pennsylvania woman who was visiting with her family when their car was carried toward the Patapsco River, police said. Baltimore County police later recovered her body on the opposite side of the Patapsco, along with that of a Windsor Mill, Md., man whose vehicle was also overcome by floodwaters.
Trapped in the dire hours of the flooding, Kelly Secret needed to escape.
She had watched the surge push four cars down Main Street, pinning one against a telephone pole. Secret and her boyfriend ran to the front door but discovered an 8-foot sinkhole had formed in the ground.
Secret, who is in her 40s, couldn’t believe it. Five years ago, she’d lost everything when another Main Street flood ravaged her ground-floor apartment, prompting her to move to a second-story home. But now, here she was again, and this time, Secret didn’t know whether she’d survive.
She and her boyfriend retreated to their apartment. Then, suddenly, they heard a cracking noise. Emergency workers armed with axes had climbed onto the roof of one building and kicked in the window of a neighboring antique store. They then chopped a hole in Secret’s wall, allowing her and her boyfriend to climb out.
“I don’t think,” she said, “I’ll ever live on Main Street again.”
In another harrowing episode, captured on video and posted to Facebook, three men formed a human chain through the furious current to reach a woman trapped inside her car.
“I can’t do this,” the woman yelled as she crawled halfway out.
“You have to,” someone shouted back.
The man closest to her was Jason Barnes, whose business, All Time Toys, was at that very moment being wrecked by floodwaters. He stretched out his arm, but he could not reach the woman. So he let go of the chain, and stumbled forward. Just seconds after he’d fallen and was nearly submerged, he took the driver in his arms and carried her to safety.
“Jason was incredibly brave and a little bit reckless to wade out to that,” said David Demspter, co-owner of Main Street’s Still Life Gallery. “When he went down, I thought that was it for Jason. I thought he would be swept away to his death.”
Since its founding in 1772, the unincorporated town of 68,000 has endured at least four major floods, according to the Maryland Historic District’s website — a pair in the 1970s, another in 1923 and one in 1868 that “wiped out most of early industry in the valley sparing only the flour mill.”
Ellicott City’s geography makes it particularly vulnerable, said Jason Elliott, a National Weather Service hydrologist in Virginia.
“Everything funneled toward that Main Street area. There’s hills on both sides, the river’s on the third side,” Elliott said. “In this case the Patapsco River was coming up, too. We believe there’s some contributions to the flood from both directions.”
When the rain began, Karry Brown, 42, was enjoying dinner at the Phoenix Emporium on Main Street. As the weather worsened, restaurant staff moved the 50 or so guests up to a third floor.
“We were just watching in disbelief at how the water was sweeping cars away,” said Brown, of Odenton, Md. “It was pretty dramatic.”
Shannon Tolley, 45, of Manheim, Pa., had stopped with a friend in the basement of Ellicott Mills Brewing Co. Soon water began to leak into the bar. Patrons were moved up to the first floor, then the second and the third.
“The water was just rushing down the street,” she said, “like a big river.”
Tolley added: “I’ve never seen anything like this in my life.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.