Around 8 a.m. Tuesday, Cyrus Dawson was watching TV coverage of Emiliano Yepez-Martinez’s family stranded on the roof of their Overland Park home.
They already had been up there for 3 1/2 hours, as fire crews waited nearby for raging currents of the Blue River to recede.
Around 9 a.m. Dawson, of Blue Springs, was wheeling his military-style truck west on Interstate 70. Two hours later he was in the watery vicinity of the Yepez-Martinez home in the 15500 block of Kenneth Road to aid in the rescue.
And the Latino family of seven was still on the roof.
“I kind of expected by that time someone would’ve gotten them down,” Dawson said later.
Around 12:30 p.m. the family was trucked to safety, but not by the rescue crews — some of whom were stationed four blocks away. Dawson and a co-worker, Spencer Sherf, plowed into the floodwaters in Dawson’s eight-wheeled Heavy Expanded Mobility Tactical Truck toward the stranded clan, who by then had climbed down to a yard merely soggy.
Eight hours had passed since Yepez-Martinez hightailed to the roof with his wife and five children, ages 9 to 19, only to wait, rest on blankets and pace as TV helicopters buzzed above. The Fire Department said the waters even at noon were too treacherous to launch a rescue, and that the seven appeared out of harm’s way on the roof.
“A family was definitely inconvenienced, and that’s unfortunate,” said Jason Rhodes, the department’s manager of media. “Had they been clinging to trees or trapped in cars, we would have launched immediately.”
As it was, he said, both the Yepez-Martinez family and rescuers were better off to let the currents between them ease.
And as for the heroics of Dawson and ? “We can’t condone private citizens taking that risk, but at least everyone’s OK,” Rhodes said. “We’re blessed by that.”
At least one woman who lives near the Yepez-Martineze home, where the family has lived about a year, criticized the rescue crews’ decision to wait.
“It’s nonsense,” said neighbor Sarah Wiese, who is a lawyer. Her father, a longtime resident of the area, spoke with the family upon its arrival.
“As a citizen I’m worried about discrimination in my neighborhood,” she said. “If it were kids on the roofs of million-dollar homes south of there, crews would’ve gotten them out and quick.”
Rhodes responded: “Patently untrue.”
“We wouldn’t pull anyone off a roof if it would put them in harm’s way,” he said. “And this family was safer on that roof instead of in the rushing water,” which rescuer Dawson said remained four feet high in spots when he drove in.
Though Yepez-Martinez and his oldest son had contact with The Star during and shortly after their ordeal, neither responded to phone calls and texts afterward.
On his cellphone and walking atop the roof shingles, the father at 9:30 a.m. told The Star: “We’ve been waiting five hours, maybe more.”
Even with several feet of water swirling around the four-bedroom house, Yepez-Martinez said older family members were able to climb down ladders to enter the flooded home if necessary. As the heat index reached the mid-80s, they managed to retrieve bottled drinks.
“We’ll get in the future a ball, just to pass around,” Yepez-Martinez joked in his phone call.
Yepez-Martinez said the family ascended to the roof of the one-story house in the middle of the night, carrying blankets and backpacks. “The noise from the river woke us up,” he said.
His wife called 911 right away. Then he called, then his oldest son called.
Authorities set up an emergency staging area four blocks away and waited for the flood waters to drop.
With fire crews in frequent phone contact with the stranded family, Rhodes explained in a statement at 8:16 a.m.: “Because they (the Yepez-Martinez family) are not in imminent danger and the water levels around them are receding, crews will allow those water levels to drop to safer levels before evacuating the family.”
By this time Dawson was at an Oak Grove farm equipping his 40,000-pound vehicle, with 52-inch wheels, for the two-hour trip to southern Overland Park. He didn’t even phone the Fire Department ahead of time to see if was OK. “From what I saw on TV,” Dawson said, “I knew that truck could get in there.”
Dawson owns Stonehenge Outdoor, which uses the truck to deliver materials for new swimming pools, landscaping and masonry jobs. Upon arriving at the flood scene, he phoned Sherf, who works in sales for the company.
Together they wheeled to the west edge of the flooding, where waters appeared calmer, and barreled a mile into it. Some areas had no standing water; others churned with debris and broken fencing.
“I wouldn’t have wanted to take a small craft in there and tried navigating it,” Dawson said.
His vehicle was large enough to haul all seven family members at once, “and probably could’ve fit 30, 40 more if I needed to,” he said.
The family seemed in good spirits and promptly left the scene with relatives, Dawson said. “They were very thankful,” he said, “and hungry.”