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Flash floods roar through valleys; 14 dead, 50 missing

By RICH EXNER

SHADYSIDE, Ohio -- Flash floods sent walls of water up to 20 feet high surging through eastern Ohio mountain valleys, killing at least 14 people and leaving 50 others missing, authorities said Friday.

A torrential downpour hit the Ohio River area shortly after 8 p.m. Thursday, transforming three 6-inch-deep creeks into raging floodwaters. Hundreds of houses, mobile homes, cars and trucks were swept up by the sudden flooding along the rural Wegee, Pipe and McMahon creeks.

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Robert Steele's house sits on a hill overlooking Wegee Creek and was spared. Some of his neighbors weren't as lucky.

'Every time there was lightning, you could see people scattered, screaming for help,' Steele said. 'There was nothing you could do.'

Hard-hit were the village of Shadyside and surrounding hill communities in the Allegheny Plateau section of eastern Ohio. Shadyside was swamped with 5 inches of rain in four hours.

Belmont County Commissioner Bob Olexo said the rain hit the hills quickly and the three valleys where the creeks lie were overwhelmed by the flash floods.

'It looks like a tornado came down all the valleys,' he said. 'There was a house on top of a bridge. There were four cars on top of each other.'

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Sheriff's Capt. Ron Everett said that at nightfall 14 bodies had been found and 50 people were still missing.

Rampaging waters swept away a house where 9-year-old Amber Colvin was playing with a friend. Amber was carried down a flooded stream and the Ohio River for 7 miles and seven hours, clinging to logs. She was rescued at 6 a.m. Friday, but her friend, Carrie, remained missing.

'I tried to save her,' Amber said from her bed at Bellaire Hospital, where she was being treated for cuts and bruises. 'I almost drowned. I was swept out of the house.'

Amber's parents had been away at the time of the flash flood. They spent the night at a makeshift shelter set up in an elementary school, not knowing what had happened to the girl. They learned at dawn.

'I can't begin to tell you how she looked,' her mother said. 'I don't know who was in shock more, me or her. Her hands and feet had no color.'

Ann Coleman, a waitress at a doughnut shop, heard about one woman being swept downstream.

'They found her washed away ... completely naked,' she said. 'She lives on Wegee Road and she was found on Pipe Creek, which is about 5 miles away. They found her wrapped around a telephone pole, but she was still alive.'

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A huge wall of water, as high as 20 feet according to some reports, roared through the rural hill communities.

'Houses and foundations ... washed away, mobile homes washed away and cars and trucks washed into the creeks,' sheriff's Capt. Todd Graham said. 'We even had a report of one caterpillar bulldozer being washed away. You're talking 30 tons of machinery.

'There was one local bar on Wegee Road where the walls collapsed and trapped people inside. There was a mobile home sitting next to the bar that washed down the creek with people in it.'

Roger Gibbons was one of about 10 people in the bar and said the only thing that saved them was a cinder block wall. He and his 9-year-old son and the other patrons crouched in a corner, beneath a pool table, until the water receded.

'I could have made it (out), but I would have lost that little boy,' he said. 'It's a good thing this wasn't a Friday night, with a band, because there's 200 to 300 people here on a Friday night. There would have been a lot of dead people.'

Graham said a makeshift morgue had been put up in Shadyside, a village of about 4,300 across the Ohio River from Wheeling, W.Va.

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The lawman told about a man concerned about his inexpensive car, which he had scrambled out of as it was swept away by floodwaters.

'He got on a tree and the tree washed away. He was able to get on another tree and waited for about two hours before being rescued,' Graham said. '(But) he was still worried about his $50 car and I had to explain to him that we were busy trying to find people this morning, not $50 cars. He said he was concerned about the fishing pole he left on the front seat.'

Graham said hundreds of area lawmen and local detachments of the Ohio National Guard and the Army Reserve were helping with the search for missing people and the cleanup.

The American Red Cross dispatched nine vans stocked with food to help feed those left homeless, and utility crews worked to restore power and-or telephone service for some 9,000 residents in eastern Ohio.

Gov. Richard Celeste, who toured the area by helicopter, asked Pennsylvania and West Virginia authorities to send boats to help search the Ohio River for bodies.

Belmont, Franklin, and Jefferson counties were added to the list of 14 other Ohio counties declared flood disaster areas by President Bush last weekend after torrential rains.

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In nearby Madison County, west of Columbus, lightning struck a beach shelter at Madison Lake Thursday night, injuring two.

More than 3 inches of rain fell in Licking County, east of Columbus, where several hundred people were evacuated in floods last weekend. Columbus was hit by 2 inches of rain, flooding streets and knocking out power to about 35,000 customers of the Columbus Southern Power Co.

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