This story was initially run in the Jan. 6 issue of the Community Voice. For access to the latest news and sports, call 270-384-9454 for a subscription.
For close to three hours, Annette Slaven clung to a tree, praying and awaiting rescue after her vehicle was washed away in floodwaters early in the morning on New Year’s Day.
Her story of survival defies the odds of someone at risk of hypothermia or drowning and her account of the fearful morning is filled with a multitude of “God moments.”
“God gave me a tree”
Slaven was awakened around 4 a.m. by a phone call from her daughter, Jennifer Suratt, who was frantic after a call from her daughter, Allie. Allie was on her way to work when a tide of water rushed her vehicle and left it disabled with her inside.
In the confusion, Slaven thought Allie’s car was flipped and she was entrapped while water was pouring in. The car was not upside down, but Allie was in trouble.
“She didn’t drive through water. It was like a big wall of water hit her on the passenger side and knocked her off the road,” Slaven said.
Allie was taking a common “cut through” used by people who live near Greensburg Road north of Columbia to get to Campbellsville Road in the Coburg area. Adair, Green and Taylor counties converge on the trail, which starts just north of the Green/Adair line on Ky. 61 and ends on Ky. 1913 near Ky. 55. Allie had cleared most of the cut through and almost reached Ky. 55 when the flood- waters left her stranded.
After the frantic phone calls, Jennifer Suratt and Jennifer’s father, Ronnie Slaven, took off in search of Allie. Annette stayed home because their two grandsons had spent the night. Once their parents got there, Annette set out on her own in search of her family.
“I’m going to die in this car”
Slaven was traveling Skinhouse Branch Road – a road Allie traveled with no difficulty – when she drove into water.
“When I hit that water, I knew I was in trouble, but I didn’t see it,” Slaven said. She tried to back up, but she was not where she thought she was, so instead of finding a driveway, she ended up off the roadway.
“It went spinning. It didn’t take me under right then,” she said.
That’s when Slaven saw three people who were stranded in the floodwater on top of a car.
“It took me right down that creek and I floated by them kids,” she said. Slaven said her husband complained that the dark, tinted windows on her vehicle were dangerous, but this time they helped save her life. She always opens her windows at night when she puts her vehicle in reverse to better see her mirrors. Because this night was no exception, her windows were down.
“If I hadn’t had them, I would have drowned,” she said.
The vehicle lights went out and Slaven searched for her phone but didn’t find it.
“The next thing I know, I guess a tree or something hit the back of my hatch and the window was broken out and the water just gushed in. It just rolled me.”
Slaven said her first thought was, “I’m going to drown. I’m going to die in this car.”
She laughs as she says she has told some people that her second thought was, “I should have listened to Ronnie…but I’d never admit that.”
Then she grows more serious, and says her second thought was, “God, get me out of this car. And my third thought was, ‘Don’t panic or you will die.’”
The seat had pushed forward on the driver’s side, but she felt her way through and managed to get out of the vehicle through the passenger window.
“When I got out, I bobbed up and got some air. I saw that I was flying through there. I thought, ‘Lord, help me, they are going to find me out here.’”
Her coat kept slipping over her head and she prayed for God to get the coat off of her.
It just washed off, I guess, it just came off. I was just flying through there and thinking, ‘I’m gone; they are never going to find me.’ And I prayed, “God, give me a tree.’”
She tried to grab one tree and missed but was successful on her second attempt.
“All at once I got hold of a tree and I wrapped my legs around it. And hung on. I just wrapped up and hung on.”
According to the timeline from when Slaven’s granddaughter called until Slaven was rescued, it appears that she clung to the tree for well over two hours and possibly closer to three hours. She recalls spending her time praying for herself and others, and thanking God for a good life.
“I said, ‘Thank you God for this tree,’” Slaven said. “I was not afraid to die, but I didn’t want to, if that makes sense.”
She prayed for the people she saw on top of the vehicle. She prayed for her granddaughter, and her husband and daughter who went in search of her granddaughter. She didn’t know it yet, but her granddaughter had been rescued and her family was all safe.
When the water hit Allie’s car, it stalled. She was able to call her mother and she called 911. For most of the time, she was able to stay on the phone while rescuers tried to determine her location.
Emergency personnel from Taylor, Green and Adair counties were in the area of the flash flooding. Waters separated them but personnel were on different sides of the flooding to help anyone they could find in trouble.
Allie was the first rescue of the morning by the Campbellsville Fire and Rescue – Special Operations. Green County Rescue was able to reach the three people on the car and take them to safety.
Jennifer Suratt, Allie’s mom, said a friend had given her a flashlight for Allie just the day before, and Allie had put it in her car.
When rescuers were trying to locate Allie, her car lights quit working and they were unable to locate her until she used her new flashlight to signal her location.
Allie was rescued at 6:12 a.m. (eastern time), according to Special Operations. It was another hour and 37 minutes before her grandmother was rescued.
While Slaven continued to grasp the tree, the water continued to rise.
“It kept slapping up at my mouth, and I thought, “Now don’t panic or you are gone.’ I thought to myself if I had a 20-year-old body I could climb this tree,” she said
She used the waves to help inch her way up the tree and was able to get her left leg over a tree limb. There she remained, holding on until her arms and legs were numb. At one point, she even found a young, flexible branch and wrapped it around her hand so it would help hold her up.
As she waited, Slaven said she thanked God for a good life and for all the good things and good people in her life.
“And I thanked him for saving me and redeeming me by his blood. And I said, ‘Lord, I don’t want to go; I don’t want to die, but I want to go to heaven and my Bible says if you are redeemed by the blood of Jesus, you will go to heaven. If I go I want to see Jesus, and I want to see my Mama and I want to see my Daddy.”
But she also asked God for mercy and said she wanted to be here for her husband, her daughters and her grandchildren.
“I just kept praying and thanking him for everything. Then I saw lights. It looked like when they block off a road, so I saw lights. And I thought I heard people hollering. So I got to hollering, ‘I’m over here. I see your lights. Can you hear me?’”
She could see people in the distance, but the sound of the rushing water kept them from hearing her. Then, someone else came to where the rescuers were – Slaven said she thought she was told he was a deputy sheriff – and as he walked from his vehicle over a rise, he heard her.
“He heard me hollering, ‘I’m here. I’m holding on to this tree, and I’m getting weak.’”
She started to see the light from a spotlight flowing over the trees as the rescuers searched for her.
Soon, two men in a motorized rescue boat arrived. Slaven said one of the rescuers told her she was a “tough cookie.”
“I remember saying to him, ‘I prayed for a tree and God gave me a tree.’”
She told them she would help all she could to get into the boat, but said, “I will try but I can’t move my arms and legs. They won’t hardly move.”
She was taken by ambulance to the hospital, where she was treated for hypothermia. She also suffered from several cuts and bruises.
Slaven said she wanted to thank all the emergency personnel involved in her rescue and treatment and with helping her family. From the rescuers, to dispatchers, to EMS
and hospital personnel, Slaven said she and her family were treated with great care.
In the ambulance, she was told her family was safe and she was able to talk to her husband.
The person assisting her in the ambulance told her, “People have really been hunting for you. She said, ‘I’m not going to lie to you, I didn’t think they would find you.’”
She then asked Slaven how she was able to hang onto the tree for so long
“By the grace of God and his good mercy,” she said. “God took care of me. I prayed for a tree, and He gave me a tree.”