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Nation

Flood sweeps cars off highway

| Monday, Sept. 1, 2003

EMPORIA, Kan. -- Flash flooding swept seven vehicles off an interstate highway, killing four children, three of them strapped inside a mini-van that was dragged for more than a mile by the rushing water. Rescuers on Sunday were still searching for the children's mother and a driver from Texas.

Everyone was accounted for in the other five vehicles that were swept off the roadway in eastern Kansas when torrential rain sent a creek spilling over Interstate 35 late Saturday, authorities said.

"It happened really fast, there was nothing that could be done," said the Rev. Steve Gordon, a driver who escaped unharmed. "It was a sick feeling just watching them go under."

The mini-van was found 1.5 miles from the scene with the children still in it. The fourth child was found yesterday morning about a quarter-mile from the van. The children's father survived, but searchers were still looking for the mother, said Capt. Mark Conboy of the Kansas Highway Patrol. Police have not released the names of the victims.

The only other person who had not been accounted for yesterday was a man from Fort Worth, Texas. Conboy said the man had called his wife Saturday evening, told her his Jeep had stalled and asked her to come get him. The wife, who arrived yesterday morning, has not heard from him since.

"We believe he got out first and was out trying to help people," Conboy said. "That was just based on what he told his wife."

Yesterday, the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks was using boats, four-wheel-drive vehicles and a helicopter to search the low-lying, rocky area in the Flint Hills, which is bordered by the usually small Jacob's Creek.

The two missing people were presumed dead, "but you can't give up hope," Conboy said.

The search would resume today if necessary, he said.

Light rain fell while search crews worked, following a downpour of more than 8 to 12 inches in a 24-hour period starting early Saturday.

The highway began flooding Saturday evening as heavy rain created a torrent in the creek. The creek, which at one point passes through a culvert under the highway, overflowed. As the water spilled into the roadway, cars were forced to stop.

The water "looked like a river going across the road," said Gordon, who was returning to the Bethany Missionary Baptist Church in Kansas City, Mo., from Dallas. "The concrete barriers (between lanes) were being tossed around like feathers."

Conboy estimated the water was six to seven feet deep along the section of interstate.

Gordon saw three cars in the southbound lanes swept under water. J.R. Robinson, who was with Gordon, saw four or five. A highway patrolman used a bullhorn to get people to stop driving through the water, but many didn't heed the warning, Gordon said.

The flooding washed out chunks of the interstate and swept some of the heavy concrete barriers -- which weigh between 10,000 and 12,000 pounds -- 50 to 60 yards from the roadway, and the abandoned vehicles could be seen strewn about the valley.

Saturday's storm had earlier hit Dodge City, in southwest Kansas, dropping 4 to 7 inches of rain and stranding motorists in high water.

"We've seen some of the vehicles floating down the road," said Dodge City Police Sgt. Steven George.

The National Weather Service said heavy rain was expected to continue in some areas.

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