Flood leaves strangers thankful for each other

KATELYN HIBBARD/Sun-Gazette Tom Karmazin, of Trout Run, stands in his backyard that was damaged by the October flood. Karmazin was swept away in Slack Run’s rapids, suffering numerous injuries. The flood waters caused mud and rock slides on the far bank of the stream, bringing down trees, and toppled the wishing well Karmazin had built years ago. The white pole shown at left is where the well originally stood.



TROUT RUN — “If it weren’t for the help I received … I wouldn’t be alive today,” Tom Karmazin recently told the Sun-Gazette in recounting the night just over a month ago when he was swept away by flood waters.

Karmazin faced near-certain death after he was snatched from his vehicle, rushed downstream and held fast in icy waters, clinging to the tree roots he miraculously caught hold of in the stormy dark.

He called for help, but no one could hear him.

And so he waited.

And waited — trapped in the cold, rushing stream for about two hours.

He felt the end was nearing. His leg was broken, he had no strength left and he was freezing.

“I was resigned to the fact that I couldn’t move until the stream flow subsided,” he said. “My luck was running out.”

But let’s start at the beginning.

Karmazin and his wife, Joan, live in Trout Run on Old Slacks Run Road, a small road that diverts off Slacks Run Road and reconnects with it in less than a mile. In the early-morning hours of the flood, Karmazin noticed how high Slacks Run stream was behind his home, with mud and rock slides occurring on its opposite bank.

When raging waters and weakened ground led to the toppling of a 90-foot pine tree, he decided it was time to get away from the property.

“I got this real creepy feeling, and I said, ‘We’ve got to get out of here,'” Karmazin said. “We should have stayed.”

He and Joan noticed their neighbors downstream preparing to leave as well, and offered to help. Susie Yannucci and her son, Paul, climbed into the Karmazins’ newly purchased 2012 Highlander while Susie’s husband, Jimmy, followed in his Explorer.

They made their way up Slacks Run Road, trying to reach higher ground. Jimmy had to turn around first and, not long after, the Highlander could go no farther. The Karmazins and Yannuccis were stuck on a sediment-laden, washed-out road.

Susie, Paul and Joan were able to get out of the vehicle safely onto the high bank along the roadside.

However, when Tom Karmazin tried to join them, he was sucked under the Highlander and swept downstream.

“I heard Joan say, ‘Oh, no, Tom!’ I remember banging my forehead and thinking it was over,” he said.

The Highlander also was swept away and later found full of mud and smashed against fallen trees.

“I thought he was dead in there,” Joan said. “It was so unbelievable to see this happening before our eyes. The trauma of it … .”

Instead, he was carried several hundred feet downstream before he stopped against a yellow birch tree and was able to grab a root, he said. In the strong current, he had broken his tibia and fibula just above his right ankle. Joan had grabbed a flashlight from the vehicle before she got out, and flailed it wildly trying both to find Tom and call for help.

“Joan was calling for me and flashing the light all over. I saw her light and said, ‘I’m alive, help, I’m OK,’ but she couldn’t hear me,” Karmazin said.

Luckily, John and Janice Hawkins also answered her calls. John, his brother Steve and their friend Charlie Verguson drove a truck down to the stream, using their headlights to illuminate the area. They soon found Karmazin, visible only from the shoulders up.

“I took my pickup truck over and shined it there and, by God, there he was,” John Hawkins said. “I don’t know how he hung on the way he did.”

The men pulled out a 2-inch hemp rope that was tied into a loop. After two throws, the brothers finally were able to get the rope to Karmazin, who looped it under his arms.

“I had a scare when the rope came loose,” he said. “I held onto the rope with my little right finger long enough until I heard a voice say, ‘Grab him by the hair if you have to, and get him out!’ The rope slipped away and I was rescued by help from above, Joan, and the Hawkins brothers.”

“John was crying when he got me out,” Karmazin added. “He said, ‘This is the most important thing I’ve done in my life.’ “

Though the threat of drowning had passed, hypothermia still was a life-threatening risk.

Karmazin and his wife were immediately taken to John Hawkins’ home, where Karmazin was undressed and wrapped in blankets. With the help of an emergency generator, Joan Karmazin was able to warm him up with a hairdryer until emergency services arrived.

“Tom’s my hero because he was in that water for such a long time,” John Hawkins said. “I’m just ecstatic things turned out the way they did. He had the will to live and he just hung on.”

Conversely, Karmazin feels his rescuers deserve all the glory.

“I could care less about me,” he said. “They saved my life.”

In the end, Karmazin was lucky to have suffered only the numerous bumps and bruises, bruised ribs and the broken tibia and fibula. The Karmazins’ home escaped all harm, though the bank, several trees and other plants were washed away. The wishing well Tom Karmazin built years ago was also knocked over off their well pipe, though the well itself was unharmed.

“This is nothing compared to what other people went through,” Joan Karmazin said of their property damage. “My husband is alive, that’s all I care about.”

“Not bad for age 74,” Tom Karmazin added, laughing.