A missing elderly Fort Plain woman, who is presumed to be dead, was likely in her mobile home when it was carried away by a flash flood of the Otsquago Creek on Friday morning, police believe.
Local and state police and firefighters conducted an expansive search and rescue effort Friday for 87-year-old Ethel Healey, of 34 Abbott St., that included the use of specialized canine units and a state police helicopter to survey the banks of the creek. That search concluded at 10 p.m. and is now classified as a recovery mission, village Police Chief Robert Thomas III said during a news conference Saturday afternoon.
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“The probability is likely that she is dead,” Thomas said.
Witnesses report seeing Healey in her home minutes before the rapidly rising waters carried it away, leaving a sole wooden post from her porch and her water meter behind as evidence that she lived there. The home has not been found, and authorities are doubtful that they will find it intact.
Fort Plain firefighters, including Assistant Chief Jeff Smith, who is also Montgomery County undersheriff, were called to the Otsquago Creek area just after 6 a.m. Friday for a call that water had reached the backyard of a property on Reid Street. At the location of the call, the creek runs between Reid Street to the east and Abbott Street to the west.
“When we arrived, there were high waters, nothing out of the normal … but within a five-minute time span, that water had completely risen so fast that it encompassed all of Reid and all of Abbott Street,” Smith said.
The fast-moving water made it almost impossible for anyone to consider evacuating, as reverse 911 calls didn’t reach some residents until they were already trapped. The water rose so quickly that some police officers warning people of the danger were also trapped by the creek’s flooding.
Authorities reached Healey and her neighbors on Abbott Street to warn them of the danger while they could still evacuate, but Smith said most decided to stay in their homes.
“We’ve had high water incidents in the past, but they never, ever expected it to do what it did and rise as high and as fast as it did,” he said. “Her and her neighbors wanted to stay in their homes because they felt it was a typical high-water incident, but this one was anything but typical.”
Jami Stevens, who lives at the end of Abbott Street, the street’s highest point, said the flooding spared her home, but the speed of the rising water made it almost impossible to react to the situation. She was warned about the danger by a call from her husband, which gave her enough time to move two family cars to safety. When that was done, she said the creek had doubled in depth.
Authorities estimate the creek rose more than six feet, with water sweeping away the side of a house and most of the asphalt that makes up the street.
After seeing what the creek did, Stevens still doesn’t second-guess her decision — or similar decisions made by neighbors, including Healey, to stay in their homes based on what they knew.
“I think I would have had to see how much water we would have gotten,” she said. “I know it’s silly, but I don’t know.”
The challenge of leaving, she said, is being willing to abandon your home, which isn’t an easy proposition when you think of all of the memories that could be lost.
Memories on Abbott Street stretched back decades for Healey, as she raised her family where Stevens now lives with her husband and two kids before briefly moving out of the neighborhood.
“For a short time, she didn’t live on the street, but she came back,” Stevens said. “This is where she was happy.”
Others were feared missing late Friday night after they evacuated their homes but all but Healey are believed to have been located.
“At this point, we have no other indications that anybody is missing,” Thomas said. “Most of the residents we have been able to ascertain where they’re at. We have no reports from family members of anybody else who lived in the area that they have not located any of their family members.”
No other injuries have been reported.
Village and state highway crews continue to clean up the village, primarily in the hard-hit areas of Abbott and Reid streets. Anyone who left their homes from these areas is asked to contact Fort Plain police at 993-3781.
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