In Port Arthur, Texas, a trio of men from Mississippi rescues dozens from floodwater

Published 12:02 am Tuesday, September 26, 2017

PORT ARTHUR, Texas — When the call came in, Stephen Barbini and two other men thought they were entering a neighborhood to save a single elderly woman.

Eight hours later, the crew saved more than 30 people and a number of animals. After extra help arrived, an estimated 100 to 200 people were rescued from a flooded Port Arthur neighborhood.

Hoping to help with recovery from Tropical Storm Harvey, Barbini — a 36-year-old resident of Biloxi, Mississippi — originally set out for Houston. He has helped with disaster recovery before. He’s also a licensed boat captain and a strong swimmer.

As Harvey moved closer to the Texas Gulf Coast, Barbini said he knew southeast Texas would need help.

“I just felt like I needed to go,” he said.

Before leaving Biloxi, however, he met car dealer Tony Petro and Scott Lee. The trio left for Texas about 3 a.m. Aug. 29.

In the Port Arthur area, the crew found Interstate 10 flooded. They couldn’t get to Houston.

Halted in Jefferson County, the trio looked at a map and took note of the many reservoirs in Port Arthur, Barbini said. They decided to focus their efforts on Port Arthur instead of continuing toward Houston.

Using a smartphone application named Zello, they received their first dispatch from the Cajun Navy — an informal group of private boat owners who help in search and rescue efforts — about 8:30 p.m. Aug. 29. An elderly woman named Mary needed to be rescued. She lived on Linkwood Street, near the Motiva oil refinery.

“She was not really frantic, but you could tell that she was worried,” Barbini said.

Believing there was only one person in need of a rescue, the three Mississippi men parked at the entrance to Mary’s neighborhood. Barbini recalled taking 15 to 20 steps into the street before entering knee-high water. It wouldn’t be long before the water rose above his chest.

The crew called Mary, who said water in her house was waist-deep. Barbini ended the phone call to help launch a boat. Then, with a search light and some lifejackets, he waded into the water.

In the distance, Barbini said, he spotted three people behind the beam of a small flashlight. The group walked toward the rescue crew, and Barbini waded farther into the rapidly rising floodwater. The mission soon required rescuing more than one woman. After spotting the rescue crew, people began shouting for help, and Barbini said he couldn’t remember where Mary lived.

“It all happened so quickly,” he said. “I started seeing people we didn’t expect, and I couldn’t remember her address. … They were blinking their flashlights. They were screaming. I remember the ambient noise of the raindrops and hearing everybody yelling and screaming.”

As Tropical Storm Harvey pounded Port Arthur, electricity in the neighborhood remained on, Barbini said. Porch lights flickered. Streetlights illuminated floodwater. Some lights inside houses remained on, too.

Barbini also recalled smelling gasoline that had leaked into floodwater from abandoned cars.

The rescue crew methodically moved from house to house. Barbini waded, and later swam, to people waiting for help. At first, Petro operated the boat. Later, Lee took over.

“I don’t know how we pulled it off,” Barbini said.

After several rescues, the trio set up a staging area to make it easier to pick up people who were stranded. People sat on top of a car that became a loading platform when the boat arrived.

At one point, Barbini spotted a number of puppies trapped in a pen. There were only a few inches between the top of the pen and the water. The puppies didn’t have long.

Unable to find a lock, Barbini began frantically pulling against the pen. He couldn’t break it and, fearing parasites, didn’t want to dive under water.

Using a dog collar, he placed his feet against the pen and violently jerked. Barbini recalled swearing profusely and telling the dogs he wouldn’t leave them trapped in the cage.

When the pen broke, some of the puppies began to swim out. Barbini pulled others out. He placed the puppies on the roof of a nearby building, which was less than a foot above the rising water.

Soon, the water was too high to stand, and Barbini’s shoulders and legs began to cramp. He used a lifejacket to stay afloat.

Arriving at the neighborhood about 9:30 p.m., Barbini wouldn’t get out of the water until eight and a half hours later. He’s not a religious person, but he says something kept him going.

“Whatever that something was, it wouldn’t let me fail,” he said.

The crew rescued 33 adults, three children, two dogs, two cats and a litter of puppies. Barbini said he also released a heard of cattle and some horses.

Included in the group of those rescued was Mary, the woman whose call brought Barbini, Petro and Lee to the neighborhood.

Those rescued stayed inside a large warehouse adjacent to a pumping station. After hours working alone, a man from Brandon, Mississippi, arrived with a duck-hunting boat, Petro said. Later, several others arrived when Barbini, Petro and Lee radioed for help.

The Mississippi trio slept for a few hours in their trucks, parked on the only dry spots in the neighborhood. When they woke up, between 100 and 200 people had been rescued, Petro said.

Speaking Monday about the experience, Barbini said it’s difficult to talk about, and it’s not appropriate to be called a hero.

“I don’t feel like a hero. I’m a human being, and I think I did what anybody would have done that’s not corrupted by all the BS that’s going on in the world today,” he said.

Petro agreed. They were just helping people in need, he said. Firefighters and soldiers are heroes, he said.

Both men said they would rescue the entire neighborhood again if needed.

Contact associate editor Josh Bergeron at 704-797-4246.