When strong currents swept Rodger McMurtry off a flooded bridge and into a raging Plumas County creek, he stayed calm – floating on his back watching the sky and clouds as he was rushed downstream.
He credits that Marine training – “from many, many years ago” – for saving his life.
“I never said to myself ‘this is it.’ This wasn’t it! I said I’m not going to go this way!” McMurtry said.
The 81-year-old Taylorsville resident was driving toward Crescent Mills on Friday and thought he could make it across Arlington Bridge despite 2 feet of water covering the roadway. When his four-door Chevy Trailblazer stalled midway across, he turned on the hazard lights and waited for help.
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McMurtry, a retired Tahoe-area bartender, noticed a man on Highway 89 about 75 feet away and thought he could walk to him. But when he got out of his vehicle into midthigh water, his feet just gave way in the sand.
“My feet just went out from under me, and suddenly I’m gone – floating down the river,” he said. “I’m a good swimmer but that current was just too strong.”
Charging downstream head first, he reached for a branch but missed it. After McMurtry turned his body so his feet would lead the way, the current carried him into a copse of willows. He grabbed for another branch and held on.
McMurtry estimated he had waited in the torrid waters of Indian Creek for around 15 minutes when he heard a helicopter.
“I knew it was for me,” he said.
Plumas County Sheriff Greg Hagwood had requested a California National Guard helicopter to help assess flood damage and the need for evacuations in Indian Valley, which was completely isolated by mudslides and flooded roads.
A deputy sheriff, who happened to be nearby and see McMurtry washed over the bridge, alerted Hagwood, who estimated he was 30 seconds away in the helicopter.
The helicopter swooped down through the trees and over Indian Creek, lowering a rescue officer on a cable to the swirling gray waters where McMurtry was clinging to the willow branch 100 yards below the bridge. The helmeted rescuer secured a belt around McMurtry’s waist and signaled to lift them up.
“Another two minutes and he would have been gone,” Hagwood said.
The rescue was captured on video by another National Guard helicopter.
McMurtry, missing his glasses but still wearing both boots, clutched his wallet in his left hand.
He was transported to Plumas District Hospital in Quincy, where he was treated for hypothermia and released several hours later. He spent Friday night in a motel, unable to return home because all local roads were closed.
The next day McMurtry caught a ride to his home in Taylorsville with a pharmaceutical equipment provider, who had emergency access to pass through the road blocks.
McMurtry calls his adventure “a nightmare” but he described it with a big smile and the matter-of-fact calm he employed during his 15 minutes in Indian Creek.
“I never was all that alarmed, to be honest. I remembered that Marine training and tried to stay completely relaxed. I guess it worked,” he said.
McMurtry has yet to retrieve his vehicle, which was eventually towed off the bridge to Crescent Mills less than a mile away. His only gripe about the entire incident is the $405 towing bill.
Although he has insurance, the policy requires that the owner be with the vehicle when it is towed.
“Now how was I going to be there when I’m floating down the creek,” he said.