By all accounts, Pulaski Public Works employee Mark Bentley isn’t one to toot his own horn.
That’s why co-workers were glad to make it known he was the person operating an excavator that helped rescue a woman from a car swept away by flood waters in Hiwassee Wednesday night.
“I’m not looking for glory out of it,” Bentley said. “It was just something I needed to do and, thank God, I was able to do it.”
Swift water rescue teams tried to reach the woman, who hasn’t been identified, but the width of the raging water prevented them from being able to safely reach her. When an hour passed and efforts had failed someone suggested trying some heavy equipment.
Bentley was about to go to bed when he got the 9 p.m. call that he would be needed at the scene off Eanes Ferry Road. Rescuers wanted to use Pulaski’s excavator, but the bucket had been removed for repairs so Massie District Supervisor Andy McCready loaned them his.
Initially, Bentley said, the plan was to tie a raft to the arm of the excavator and have him swing it around to the car with rescuers onboard. But the rigging crew they needed was about 30 minutes away and Bentley said it would have been a rough ride because he wouldn’t have been able to control the waves of the raging water.
“I told them ‘Let’s just drive out there (on the excavator) and get her, put her in the bucket and carry her back out,” he said. It was a whole lot safer and she’d already been out there too long.”
To make sure the land under the flood water was stable, Bentley “did a test run” alone. “I figured if something’s going to happen, then it’s just going to be me,” he said. “So, I drove the excavator out in the middle of it. The first time I was probably within 50 feet of her and I was almost tempted to just go get her, jerk her out and throw her in the cab.”
Once he determined the ground was stable enough to reach the car, two rescue personnel were tethered inside the bucket so he could haul them out to the car. The woman crawled out through a window into the bucket and he hauled them all back to safety.
Asked if he was scared during the ordeal, Bentley said, “No, not really because I didn’t even think about it. If you get in that situation you have to keep your wits about you.”
He noted he was more scared watching the car the woman was stranded in bobbing up and down in the water. “You didn’t know if it was going to take off. There was nothing strapped to it and nothing I could do if it went because I had two (people) in my bucket.”
If he’d had his choice that night he would have gone alone to get her because “If something was to have happened, I could’ve used the arm to grab the car and hold it until we could get her out, but it all worked out, so I was kind of tickled with that.”
Bentley said the only way the excavator could have gotten in trouble was if the water had gotten into the cab. If they had happened, it could have tipped over. He estimated the equipment weighs about 35,000 pounds.
At one point, the front of the excavator dipped so far down in the water he decided he’d better back up and go another way. The terrain would rise and fall as he made his way out to the car, bringing the water up to the bottom of the door at times. He said it was about four feet deep.
“As long as I kept my cab turned and kept pushing the water away from me it went pretty good,” he said. When they made it back to safety, the woman was whisked away by the emergency services workers and he never got to meet her.
Although he has helped set power poles, cut roads and performed other tasks during area “natural disasters” over the years, he said, “This was my first water rescue. I said, ‘Lord, you’re gonna have to help me,’ so we went down there and got her out. I just thank God everything worked the way it did.”
He added, “Whatever scenario comes, you just have to take it when you get there.”