On what appeared to be a relatively calm June evening, dozens of vacationing families at an Arkansas campground put out their campfires and headed for their tents for a good night's sleep. But around 2 a.m., after heavy rain, flash floods began to rip through the campsites, with water rushing as high as eight feet above the banks of the nearby Little Missouri and Caddo rivers.
The June 11 floods left 20 people dead and the entire Albert Pike campground a disaster area.
More than a month later, flood victims and their families filled Pilgrim Rest Landmark Missionary Baptist Church in nearby Lodi, Ark., to remember those they had lost and to thank Pastor Graig Cowart and other volunteers who assisted in the disaster. In the days that immediately followed the flood, the church, located 20 miles from the campground, had become the gathering spot for family members as they awaited word from authorities.
Reunited last Saturday, survivors and their families shared hugs and memories, as they drove from the church to Albert Pike to revisit the site of that tragic night.
Two of the flood victims, Marc and Stacy McNeil, had been camping that night with their 19-year-old son Shane and several others just outside the larger recreation area of Albert Pike, near the Wichita Mountains. While the McNeils survived the flood, Stacy's cousin Anthony Smith, 30, perished along with his children, Joey, 5, and Katelynn, 2.
The campground, situated in the midst of the sprawling Ouachita National Forest, is popular for the comforting seclusion it offers from the outside world. The nearest town is six miles away, and cell phone towers are virtually non-existent.
The McNeils arrived at their campsite the afternoon of June 10. Amid gentle showers they set up their tents on a little knoll, a few yards above Blaylock Creek, a branch of the Little Missouri. Marc's cousins, the Canters, and friends Kathy Nelson and James Cowling soon joined them.
In the middle of the night, Kathy awoke with a start. Rain was pounding hard on the slick fabric of her tent. She tried to go back to sleep, but a strange noise outside caused her to investigate. Kathy soon discovered that rushing creek water had crept to within three feet of her tent, and was rising fast.
Recognizing the danger, she and James quickly woke up the rest of the group. As they hastily tried to pack up, the water began closing in around them. When they tried to leave, they discovered they were trapped.
After James was almost swept away, Shane suggested that his father move his Dodge pickup farther away from the rising waters. Marc jumped in the cab and drove the truck in between two trees, hoping they would help anchor the vehicle.
With the water level continuing to rise, everyone began to crawl into the truck's large bed. As Stacy climbed in she saw Marc mouth the words "I love you." Realizing he was trying to say goodbye, her mind protested.
"I started thinking, no, no, unh-unh," Stacy remembered. "I ain't going down without a fight."
Stacy grabbed her husband and son and began crying out to God as the water rose to their waists, as the truck started to rock back and forth like a rowboat. "Some people see their lives flash before their eyes," Stacy said. "But the only thing that was flashing before my eyes was the name of Jesus."
Shane started to yell his prayers, trying to be heard over the noise of the storm. Vines wrapped around their ankles, and every few minutes they had to shake free.
Lightning flashed, and Marc watched the murky water edge up over the top of his toolbox. He put his head down, praying, "God, please let it stop raining." Lifting his head, he saw that the water had covered his toolbox. Not giving up, he bowed his head once more to pray. He looked up for a second time and saw something that made his heart nearly stop: The camping lantern atop the toolbox had bugs flying around it. He blinked and looked again. The bugs remained, calmly buzzing around the neon sticks of light.
Marc shook Stacy excitedly, saying, "Look at the bugs, look at the bugs!" The group stared at him, not understanding. "If there's bugs, then it's stopped raining," Marc explained.
Someone looked at the time. It was 4 a.m.
The water began to recede, and the top of the toolbox gradually reappeared. "It was like someone pulled the plug and it all just drained away," Marc said.
Around 6 a.m., the McNeils and their friends were able to get out of the truck and walk around. The water had swept away the group's other vehicles. Someone looked back at Marc's truck and commented, "There's Marc's Ark."
A few hours later, the group arrived at Pilgrim Rest, where volunteers provided the survivors with food and blankets. As the McNeil group sat in the church, the reality of what had just occurred began to set in. "I prayed to God to anchor this truck and send his angels to come around and hold it in place," Stacy said. "They did."
Marc believes God spared him and his family for a reason: "I don't know what that reason is yet, but my goal is to find out someday."
Many media outlets have portrayed Marc as a hero, but he and Stacy have wanted to set the record straight and give credit where they believe it is due.
"I'm not the hero," Marc said. "God is the hero."
The pre-dawn flash flood that devastated a popular Arkansas campground on June 11 left dozens stranded and claimed the lives of 20 victims, seven of whom were children.
Graig Cowart, pastor of Pilgrim Rest Landmark Missionary Baptist Church in Lodi, Ark., offered his church as a refuge for survivors, and his church quickly became the designated reception facility for the remaining victims. "We just quit what we were doing and began to get the place set up," said Cowart. "By the time they began to arrive, we almost had more volunteers than victims."
One volunteer was Pastor E.J. Johnson of Glenwood, Ark., a town about 10 miles east of Lodi. "They were clearly in shock and disbelief," said Johnson, who pastors the Glenwood Church of Christ. "Each one had a story, some filled with amazing feats of heroism, and others with heartrending tragedy."
The Pilgrim Rest volunteers tried to fill needs such as offering the use of cell phones so survivors could contact family members out of state. As items poured in from the surrounding community, Cowart's wife, Andrea, helped organize the donations. "It's unbelievable the amount of supplies that had come in," she said, 'from people two miles away to 200 miles away."
Amidst the tragedy, the Cowarts say they have seen God's hand move in ways they never could have imagined. "We looked at this as an opportunity that God had placed in our lives, for our faith to take on legs," Graig said. "We put our lives on hold, and submerged our lives in the lives of others."
Johnson agreed, saying, "People are tired of fake Christianity and everyone's kind of on to it now." He believes the disaster provided an opportunity for people to "be real."