Prince George's Flood Kills Two Firemen Attempting Rescue

from Washington Post, August 11, 1969

by Kirk Scharfenberg

Additional Information provided by Bob Jacobs, President of Chillum-Adelphi Fire Department

A line of violent thunderstorms that slashed through the Washington area last Saturday and early yesterday killed two Prince George's firemen trying to rescue a family in rampaging Sligo Creek.

The storms, accompanied by winds of over 55 miles per hour, caused extensive flooding in Prince George's County, stalled hundreds of cars in areas north of Washington, knocked down trees in Northern Virginia and interrupted power briefly in many neighborhoods throughout the metropolitan area.

Two Prince George's fire fighters, volunteers with the Chillum-Adelphi company, were swept to the their deaths by five-foot swells in Sligo Creek as they attempted to rescue a Woodbridge, Va., family stranded on a New Hampshire Avenue bridge in Takoma Park.

The firemen were identified as Robert J. Harmon, 23, a glassblower for the National Institutes of Health, who lives at the Chillum-Adelphi firehouse, 7901 Riggs Rd; and Robert C Hobstetter, 31, a technician for television station WTTG, who lived with his wife and 5-year-old daughter at 12008 Maddox La., Bowie.

Harmon had been a volunteer for 18 months. Hobstetter, who had recently moved to Bowie, had been with the volunteer company for seven years.

The firemen were killed as they tried to reach Mr. and Mrs. Ronald Knowles and their 5-year-old son, Clark.

The family had abandoned its car when it was swpet from the Sligo Creek Parkway into the stream itself. They were then carried by the current to the partly submerged New Hampshire Avenue bridge over the creek and parkway where they sat on a bridge railing.

Mrs. Knowles said yesterday afternoon that sometime after midnight the family turned onto the parkway and had driven only a short distance before the water was up to the door handles of the car.

They were swept down the road by the water for about two blocks, Mrs. Knowles said.

"A boy saw us and hollered to get out of the car. He swam over and I held onto our little boy and he pulled us out the window. My husband went out the other window," she said.

The youth, Colin Turner, 18, of Takoma Park, said he guided the woman and her child downstream to the bridge. Her husband, employed by the Army in Washington, reached the bridge by himself.

Shortly after they reached the bridge, Mrs. Knowles said, the rescue squad arrived.

Turner, who remained in the water, said he tried to help one of the fire fighters secure a line to Knowles. Then, Turner said, he and the other fireman slipped and were swept under the bridge.

A spokesman for the Prince George's fire department said that both Harmon and Hobstetter were carried under the bridge with Turner, Harmon remained secured to a lifeline and was pulled out quickly. He was taken to the Washington Sanitorium and Hospital (in 2004 this is the Washington Adventist Hospital) at 12:30am, but an hour-long effort to revive him failed.

Hobstetter was separated from the lifeline. He was swept downstream a half mile and his body was not recovered until about 3 a.m.

Turner said, "I rolled myself into a ball and held my breath as I went under the bridge. I bumped into a stump and was able to hold onto it for about fifteen minutes. I heard a man in the woods and I yelled to him. He guided me in with a flashlight." Mrs. Knowles said she thought the youth had drowned.

The Knowles family was finally rescued from the span by Takoma Park firemen. "I was shaking so hard I couldn't stop," Mrs. Knowles said: "It was a harrowing experience. My little boy was calm through it all. He had a toy truck and he never let it go. The only thing he said was, 'Mom, my shoes are wet'."

This car was swept off New Hampshire Avenue at the Sligo Creek Parkway during Saturday's severe thunderstorm.

Rescue squads and police in Montgomery and Prince George's Counties worked throughout the night to combat the effects of the storm, which dumped close to five inches of rain in someplaces.

The Cabin John Volunteer Fire Company reported removing about 10 persons, including a woman 8 months pregnant, from cars stalled by flooding on River Road where it crosses Cabin John Creek.

Frederick Simon, of Warwick Towers, Silver Spring, said two Montgomery County policemen rescued him and his 75-year-old mother from the roof of their car submerged in Sligo Creek. Chief James Alexander of the Laurel Rescue Squad said his department made 35 runs during the night. Much of Sligo Creek Parkway was still under water late yesterday and a bridge on Route 129 near Laurel was washed out. No serious flooding was reported in the District, but many trees were knocked down and water was six inches deep on many streets in the northern part of the city.

No serious flooding was reported in Northern Virginia. Low-lying Arlandria, which has suffered severe flooding three times in recent weeks, escaped without any damage, according to Alexandria police.

The Weather Bureau said the storm was caused by the movement of cool, dry air from the west into the area where heavy, moist air was present. They said the storm lasted from about 9:15 p.m. Saturday until shortly after 7 a.m. yesterday. Amounts of rain reported ranged from 1.28 inches at National Airport to 4.8 inches in Wheaton. The storm moved out of the area yesterday morning.

Pepco reported "spotty" power failures throughout the area. The most severe, a company spokesman said, was a 51-minute failure in the New York Avenue - Bladensburg Road area of Northeast Washington.

Additional Information provided by Bob Jacobs, President of Chillum-Adelphi Fire Department

By late in the evening of August 9, 1969, the only vehicles left in the Chillum-Adelphi Volunteer Fire Department were an ambulance and a hook and ladder truck. The other vehicles were out answering calls on this stormy night. The two vehicles were called out of the station for a situation in College Park and, when that call was cancelled, were vectored to the rescue situation on the New Hampshire Avenue bridge over Sligo Creek. Bob Jacobs drove the hook and ladder truck with Robert Hobstetter and Robert Harmon drove the ambulance south on New Hampshire Avenue from University Boulevard down the hill to the flooded creek crossing. The swollen creek was raging deeply over the bridge; the Knowles family and Colin Turner were perched on the cement downstream railing of the bridge over the creek.

Exiting their vehicles Harmon and Hobstetter attempted to reach the four people clinging to the railing. Harmon, secured by a safety line, started through the water towards the family. As he reached the beginning of the railing, the flood water washed away the macadam at the edge of the bridge. The water that had been boiling up in front of the bridge railing found an outlet and, cascading down, washed Harmon off the bridge. Hobstetter in attempting to save Harmon was also washed downstream. Bob Jacobs who was manning the safety line pulled Harmon from the water. Hobstetter was found hours later downstream.