Hurricane Gaston: Remembering the destruction 15 years later

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(WRIC) — It’s been 15 years since what was left of Hurricane Gaston stalled over Central Virginia, dropping more than a foot of rain in a matter of hours, costing millions in damages and claiming the lives of 9 people.

August 30, 2004 remains a day engraved in the minds of some Central Virginians who lived through the storm. If not for the amazing rescues across the city – many others would have died.

Fifteen years after the devastation tore through an entire region, 8News spoke with a Richmond firefighter who was on the front lines.

“We didn’t think anything of it,” said Billy Dew. “It’s a little rain. We knew we were gonna get those kinds of calls.”

But not even firefighters knew how many people would end up needing life jackets.

“By the time we left the German School Road area we were backlogged by probably a couple dozen calls,” Dew told 8News. “And of course the rain’s coming down harder now.”

The rainfall was hard enough to wash out the Powhite Toll Plaza – and make a car float through a “river” on Interstate-95.

Home video from locals trapped on Main street showed water rising in Shockoe Bottom.

And the worst was still ahead.

By nightfall, thousands of people were without power as only lightning pierced the dark skies.

And the water rose higher.

“I don’t think anybody knew we were gonna get a foot of rain in an 8 or 9 hour span,” Dew said.

In the meantime, another harrowing scene was unfolding at the Falling Creek Apartments in Chesterfield, where families trapped by water, were crying for help from their second-story windows.

Chesterfield firefighters saved some by extending ladders across the torrent to open windows. Eventually, fire crews cut the roof, pulling victims away to safety.

Back in Richmond’s Shockoe Bottom, rising waters forced the staff out the Bottoms Up Pizza.

As the rain fell – and water rose – more lives were at stake.

Billy Dew remembers his boat crew responding to the area of 15th and Main, where three people were trapped on a bus.

“We got everybody out of individual vehicles first,” he said. “There were about 10 people that we rescued right here. There were cars being washed, vehicles being washed almost constantly through the current.”

A woman in one of the flooded cars joined the three people trapped inside the bus to escape the storm’s wrath.

“The people that were on the bus were actually very calm,” Dew said. “It was almost like this low grade shock.

“The water caused the circuitry to short out so we couldn’t open the doors to get people out. So I had to kick at the door a couple of times–and extremely painful to kick at that door, to open it up, but it finally did open.”

Firefighter like Dew, and others from every jurisdiction put their lives in harm’s way to save others.

“All the fire departments were doing rescues somewhere,” Dew said.

Daybreak revealed the extent of Gaston’s fury — buildings with noticeable muddy watermarks, cars flooded out, and roadways damaged.

Disruptions would last for weeks. For thousands of families, so would the messy – and muddy – cleanup process.

But were it not for brave fire responders like firefighter Billy Dew, things could have been much worse.

“We went after 57 people that night and we rescued all 57,” Dew said. “We didn’t lose a single person. So I’m very proud of that.”

PHOTOS: Remembering the Destruction

15 years ago, firefighter Billy Drew was a member of Richmond’s Swift Water Rescue Team. In the videos below, 8News Anchor Juan Conde helps him re-live some of those harrowing moments responding to rescue calls during Hurricane Gaston.

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App users can click here to watch web extra

Firefighter hurls water bottles at Juan Conde to demonstrate power of Gaston

Firefighter Dew throws different size water containers (gradually going up in size) at Juan to demonstrate exactly the force of some of the objects (in the water) that he and other emergency responders came in contact with that day.

Firefighter Drew uses fire hydrant, kettle bell to demonstrate force of rushing waters

Firefighter Dew put a 20-pound kettlebell in front of an exposed fire hydrant to demonstrate the force of the rushing waters from Gaston.

Firefighter Drew revisits St. John’s Church

Firefighter Dew and Juan take a walk along 25th and Broad streets in Church Hill where the historic St. John’s Church is located.
The floodwaters from Gaston washed out a brick wall near where the church sits.

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