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Rescuers

Michele Gleaton, center, and her three dogs pose with the men who rescued them from flooding — Sean Hamilton, left, and Robbie Lawrence — on Wednesday at Gleaton’s Branchville home on the Edisto River.

Sean Hamilton grew up near Branchville along the South Fork of the Edisto River.

He also knew well the river and Mother Nature can both giveth and taketh away.

As early as Wednesday, Sept. 30, forecasters were predicting torrential and copious amounts of rainfall across the region over a three-day period.

The forecasts propelled Hamilton into action.

"Before it took place, I got phone numbers and handed out flyers telling people it was going to be a rough time when the storm hit," Hamilton recalled. "I focused on the river because we knew the river would come out of the bank."

For Hamilton, a Bamberg County sheriff's deputy, the focus particularly was on the South Fork on the south side of Branchville and the Denmark side of the river. The hardest hit areas were Embree Road, Hope Road, Gar Road and a significant portion of S.C. Highway 61.

"Once the storm hit, I called them and texted them to make sure they were still standing on solid ground and not floating," he said. "When it hit hard, I made sure people were evacuated, and for those who decided to stay, I checked on them morning, afternoon and night."

"A lot of them decided to ride it out," he said, 'but a lot had their homes flooded or could not get to their homes."

During the week's duration of the storm, Hamilton got up around 6 a.m. and worked until 10 p.m., even working off hours.

Hamilton is just one example of the host men and women in Orangeburg, Calhoun and Bamberg counties who answered the call of duty during the historic floods that struck the region last month.

The Thanksgiving holiday is normally a time to reflect on what one is thankful for and the same is the case for local emergency response personnel.

Emergency Services Director Sharon Hammond said Hamilton stands out among individuals who deserve much thanks as he went above the call of duty and beyond county borders in helping during the flooding.

"He took it upon his own initiative and talked to the people and encouraged them to move," the Bamberg County official said. "He started doing that before I knew what was going on down there."

"He is proactive and it takes a lot of the worry away and wondering about the citizens and if they get the message," Hammond said. "He made sure they got the message. Having relationships to those people down there was very important at the time."

There were a couple of instances where Hamilton came to the rescue.

Hope Road resident Michele Gleaton found her home engulfed by flood waters. Gleaton lives about a mile from the meeting point of the Edisto's South Fork and North Forth.

"I know I probably should have left, but I was hoping it would not come into the house," she said. "Sean came by that Monday morning and he checked on me. He came back that afternoon to see if I was okay."

But by Tuesday, Oct. 6, Gleaton knew she was stranded.

"It started coming up quick," she said. "Sean and his friend Robbie Lawrence came and picked me up about 6:30 that evening. My three four-legged babies were the first ones to get in the boat. They looked to see if I was coming."

"I tried to get her out of the house the day before, but when I came back, the water had rode up to the back of her house," he said. "You could not get a vehicle down there."

At the time of the rescue, water was about a quarter of an inch from coming into the house. Following the storm, about eight inches of water had entered the home's bottom floor and five inches on the top floor.

"Sean was as good as gold," Gleaton said. "He did not have to keep coming down there like he did because he was risking his life. I am fortunate to have had him and I am fortunate to have my life."

Since the storm the house has been remodeled and Gleaton is hoping to move back in within a few weeks. She has been staying with her parents in Ehrhardt.

Her three dogs have been staying at a veterinarian's for the last month since her parents do not have a fenced-in yard.

"That is my home," she said.

Hamilton said he does not consider himself a hero.

"I had the means to help people out and that is what I did," he said. "I would want somebody to do the same thing for me."

In Orangeburg County, Branchville Fire Chief Carsten Steiner and his volunteers learned new lessons about water rescues. For the first time, the chief of nearly two years discovered what it was like to have the Edisto River become the focus of emergency efforts.

Steiner said the countywide team of volunteers early in the flooding prioritized the hard-hit areas around Holly Hill and Eutawville. As the days passed and river levels rose, emphasis shifted to his home area.

The Branchville volunteers performed three river rescues and spent days monitoring the situation.

“We sent probably three solid days with a few of us going around checking the river and residences,” Steiner said. “We have several houses right on the river and used boats and four-wheelers.”

“It never dawned on me that we did not have a boat,” Steiner said, noting his team’s primary mission is fighting fires. A boat is not in the budget but Steiner said it is OK to say it’s on his wish list for the future.

Orangeburg County Emergency Services Director Billy Staley echoed Steiner in commending the many who helped during the flooding.

“We want to thank all of them,” Staley said. “We want to commend the paid staff, the county employees, the state employees, municipal employees. It was really a collaborative effort.”

Inside today’s T&D, a special section on the flooding of 2015 is sponsored by Orangeburg County and includes special thanks to all who assisted during the disaster and afterward.  

Calhoun County Emergency Services Director Bill Minikiewicz said two individuals in Calhoun County deserve much thanks for their efforts during the flood.

One is Michael Wieber, who used his ham radio skills to man the Calhoun County Emergency Operations Center during the storm.

"He volunteered to come down to the EOC and man the EOC so Dave (Chojnacki) and I could get a little break and a meal," Minikiewicz said.

Wieber answered the phones and the radio during the wee hours at the height of the storm.

"It was a big help just having company in the EOC in those wee hours," Minikiewicz said. "It was comforting."

Wieber said it was just a simple thing.

"They needed help and I went down there to help," he said, adding there were others who helped. "They had both been there for many hours and they needed some sleep."

The other was Brian Rizner, a Calhoun County paramedic and a member of the St. Matthews Fire Department.

"In addition to working a lot, he worked extra hours with the fire departments going around and checking on people, on properties and road conditions," Minikieiwicz said, adding that Rizner was involved in evacuations as well. "He did the initial reporting when things started getting saturated and falling apart."

"It is very comforting to have people you can rely on," Minikiewicz said.

Overall in The T&D Region there were 52 rescues during the storm. More than 30 individuals in the region had to be sheltered for a time and about 233 roads were closed due to flooding. About 52 of these roads were washed out.

Contact the writer: gzaleski@timesanddemocrat.com or 803-533-5551. Check out Zaleski on Twitter at @ZaleskiTD

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Staff Writer

Gene Zaleski is a reporter/staff writer with The Times and Democrat.

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