Leroy Krittenbrink, 72, and his wife, Bernice, 66, are lucky to be alive. But a day after their dramatic rescue from swirling brown floodwaters in Oklahoma, they looked fresh and none the worse for wear as they told TODAY co-host Matt Lauer about their ordeal.
And the first question put to them was the one that occurred to anyone watching the live video of the couple clinging to their white pickup truck as it was consumed by the flood: How does anyone find themselves driving in water that deep?
With the laconic delivery that might be expected from the nation’s heartland, Leroy said he didn’t find the deep water. It found him. With heavy rains from Tropical Storm Erin pelting the region, he and his wife decided to drive out to check on the farm they own outside their hometown of Kingfisher, Okla.
“We were on the highway, and a wall of water — I’d say three, three-and-a-half feet deep —hit us all at one time,” he said.
The water carried the couple’s truck off the highway onto the flooded farmlands around them. Leroy thought they floated for an hour; Bernice said it was more like an hour and 45 minutes.
At first they stood in the cab. As the water rose, they moved to the bed of the truck, but that rapidly filled with water, too.
“Things were disappearing,” said Bernice.
“Real fast,” said Leroy, finishing her sentence for her.
Randy Poindexter is the fire chief of Kingfisher who rescued them as the nation watched — including one of the couple’s three children, a daughter, in Utah. Poindexter had never performed a helicopter water rescue in his career as a fireman and fire chief, and didn’t have the luxury of working with the slings and winches that are standard equipment on Coast Guard rescue craft. Instead, he was on the landing skid of a four-passenger Oklahoma Highway Patrol traffic helicopter.
He was performing one rescue — he jumped in the water from the copter to rescue a mother and her four children — when a small plane searching for flood victims radioed that a couple were stranded in their pickup truck and needed help fast.
Barbed-wire fences submerged just below the surface of the floodwaters prevented rescue boats from being used. They also added to the urgency of rescuing the Krittenbrinks: If they were swept away in the water, they would likely have been snared in a fence and possibly dragged under.
Poindexter climbed out of the helicopter and sat on one of its landing skids as the pilot expertly hovered his craft literally on the surface of the water.
“I was just hanging on to the helicopter and grabbing,” Poindexter said, giving the state police pilots all the credit. “I couldn’t have done it without them.”
On the rescue copter’s first swing past the marooned couple, Poindexter dropped them life jackets.
“That was a real exciting moment when we saw the life preservers,” Bernice said.
Just in time
The helicopter quickly returned, and not a moment too soon. The swirling, muddy water had completely covered the truck and the Krittenbrinks were hanging on to whatever they could.
Poindexter grabbed Bernice first, who wrapped her arms around the helicopter’s skid. She hung on as long as she could as the pilot flew just above the water, but lost her grip and fell in the water, where she floated on her back, supported by the life vest.
“I just didn’t have the strength to hang on to the skids,” she said. “I was scared, but your adrenaline’s pumping and you don’t have a lot of time to think.”
On the second try, the fire chief managed to help Bernice climb up on the skid and sit on it while they flew to safety.
Leroy’s rescue was equally hair-raising. Like his wife, he grabbed the skid as the pilot flew at the water’s surface, dragging him through the flood until he was too exhausted to hang on. Poindexter finally managed to grab his legs and fly him out hanging upside down.
Unlike her daughter watching the drama from Utah, Bernice couldn’t see her husband being rescued. She had been dropped on high ground more than a mile from the truck, but a rescuer with binoculars gave her a running account of the rescue.
The helicopter took Leroy to the other side of the flooded road, where he collapsed in exhaustion. It was several hours before the Krittenbrinks were reunited. It wasn’t long before the requests for interviews started pouring in, including one from the TODAY show.
Bernice was so exhausted, she collapsed in bed. But she did manage to get up and go out long enough to get her hair done. After all, she was going to be on television.
“It would have been a scary situation if you had seen me looking the way I looked yesterday,” she explained.