'Survival was the main thing:' Perdido River resident survives all-day ordeal to be rescued

Madison Arnold Pensacola News JournalPublished 8:18 AM EDT Sep 21, 2020Feeling like he was in the middle of a

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Feeling like he was in the middle of a Weather Channel broadcast, Terryl Bechtol Jr. watched his neighbors' son paddle a borrowed canoe to get to him as flood waters were nipping at the bottom of his house on the Perdido River Thursday.

That was the first part of his harrowing journey to be rescued from his home on River Annex Road that lasted an entire day as the river jumped its banks, quickly filled Bechtol's yard and seemed determined to reach his house 12 feet in the air on stilts. It ended with Bechtol being rescued from his truck in the middle of the night just as flood waters began to surrounded him.

"At that time (the canoe arrived), the water level was almost right at the edge of my house and the steps that we went down, there's about 15 steps going down. Well, there was only four by the time the canoe got there," Bechtol said. 

He was one of 600 people rescued in Escambia County following Hurricane Sally.

Bechtol is a former boat captain who had been monitoring the river pretty closely before and during Hurricane Sally last week. He checked the river levels Tuesday as Pensacola began to be pelted with rain from the storm and it was at 1.8 feet, well below flood stage of 13 feet.

That changed drastically Thursday morning around 8 a.m. when Bechtol noticed his yard to begin to fill with flood waters. By 11 a.m., he decided it was time to make his first call for help.

He said at that point, rescue workers were telling him to sit tight and they'd get to his area eventually. It would be another 12 hours of rising waters before he and his 120-pound rottweiler named Cleo could be rescued.

The water was about a foot away from reaching his house when the neighbors' son showed up with a canoe. Bechtol had hurriedly packed bags and tried to put his valuables up high before jumping in the boat. He then helped to paddle himself to his truck, which he moved to higher ground on another neighbor's property were he road out the storm.

At that point, Bechtol didn't have phone service and couldn't call for help or give his family a status update.

"That's what made me more emotional than anything else was thinking about them and what they were going through," he said.

His dad, T. Bubba Bechtol, who also had to evacuate his Pensacola Beach home, said the family was frantically on the phone with the Escambia County Sheriff's Department trying to get help for Terryl.

"That's the only scary part. We tried to get to him for two days and we didn't know what was happening," T. Bubba Bechtol said. "It just got to a point where all we could do is sit and wait and hope the water didn't get him."

Around 5 p.m. Thursday, Bechtol happened to look in his rear view mirror while waiting for rescuers to show up and realized he had On Star, which he used to call for help and get connected to his family. He said he worked with the company from 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. before making his final call for help.

"I was resided to thinking that we were just going to have to stay in the truck all night long. The water level was continuing to creep up but the rate had significantly slow down, so I was just praying that water wouldn't come up and overtake the truck with us in it," he said.

Around that time, the Cantonment Fire Department had assessed his situation and went back to get a small Zodiac boat, Bechtol said. They had to take it through the flooded woods because it hit a log jam on River Annex Drive, created when a massive tree fell across the road.

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The rescuers had to drag the boat across the dry parts in the woods before putting it in the water again once they reach flooding. They were almost to Bechtol before they got the boat caught in a fence line and had to turn back for bolt cutters and start the process over again.

That's when he heard the first responders calling 'Is anybody there?' and began trying to shine his flashlight in the trees so they'd see him in the pitch-black forest.

"Survival was the main thing at that point, always constantly thinking 'What do I do next if the water gets here?' That's just kind of the way my brain works," Bechtol said. "Am I going to have to take this dog and march through the woods and just continue to find higher ground?"

By the time he was rescued, the waters were closing in around him, about 10 feet from his truck.

The group went back the way they came, through the woods and dragging the boat over the dry sections. Bechtol came out of the ordeal with a migraine and 30 fire ant bites but otherwise healthy. Cleo was fine, as well.  

"Coming off that adrenaline from thinking something really bad could happen, I crashed and I slept forever," Bechtol said. "It was emotional. It was certainly traumatic and like I said, I kept looking around for Weather Channel cameras."

Now, Bechtol is safe with his family staying in Gulf Breeze and met with his insurance adjuster Sunday to get started on a claim.

Bechtol said he lost yard tools, chainsaws and and a leaf blower that were likely washed out in the shed underneath as water made it just to the edge of his home. 

From now on, Bechtol said he will be evacuating for all big storms instead of waiting it out. He plans to do more research into flood and evacuation zones and talk with other residents on area rivers. 

"In retrospect, it's probably easy for someone to sit back and say 'Well, you were stupid and should've left. And you should've done this and that,'" he said.

Bechtol said he stayed at his property because there were not evacuation orders for the river areas during the storm. He said he felt as though leaders should've issued them as all the rain from Hurricane Sally in the north would flow back down through the rivers.

"For me personally, I will definitely leave next time. I wouldn't leave it to chance," he said. "I just feel like I was let down by our leadership around here."

Madison Arnold can be reached at marnold@pnj.com and 850-435-8522.

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