CASCABEL — As muddy, branch-and-debris-filled water raced down a wash, taking 77-year-old Jean Schmechel with it, the septuagenarian’s clothes, shoes and glasses were torn from her body as she tried to grab onto anything that would stop the wild ride.
Finally, when she reached a small inlet off a roadway, she grabbed onto some brush and was able to steady herself somewhat. It was then that Schmechel realized she had nothing on except a tattered blouse and a stainless steel chain around her neck with a crucifix and a silver heart-shaped locket filled with her husband’s ashes.
At her home Tuesday, with bandages covering her legs, Schmechel said she believes the crucifix and her husband’s remains kept her alive as she clung to branches and brush in the cold, raging water for more than 12 hours until she was found by rescuers the following day just after 7 a.m.
“I just hung on and hung on and hung on,” Schmechel said. “Jesus was with me.”
Scmechel, according to Sgt. David Noland of the Cochise County Sheriff’s Search and Rescue Team, had been swept down Ocotillo Road by floodwaters from the wash near her home. A storm on the afternoon of July 2 dumped about 2 inches of water near the Benson Airport and Noland said all the water went into two washes near Schmechel’s residence at Ocotillo and Leyenda Lane.
Both Schmechel and her roommate, Karen Gordon, 69, were caught in the water, but Gordon was able to climb out after being swept down the road about three-quarters of a mile, she said Tuesday. Gordon was able to make her way to the fifth wheel that she and Schmechel share and had a neighbor call 911.
“When we found her (Schmechel) she was pretty much buried in the mud,” Noland said Tuesday. “She was hypothermic. We wrapped her in space blankets. She was a quarter-mile east of her house.”
Noland said Schmechel had been swept down the wash about 1.5 miles.
On Friday afternoon, July 2, Schmechel received a phone call from a friend telling her that water would soon be racing down the wash near Schmechel’s and Gordon’s house on Leyenda.
“She always wanted to see water run in a wash and hear the roar, as they say,” Gordon said. “So we went down to the wash. I didn’t want to but she forced me.
“We were just sitting on the side and we could see about 300 yards up through the wash. It was starting to rain and get cold. I said ‘Oh my gosh Jean, let’s go back to the van and we can drive down here and watch the wash.’ “
Schmechel agreed and the pair began walking toward the road to their van, Gordon said. Gordon, who was walking faster, said she was about 15 feet from the road when she suddenly saw Schmechel pass by her in fast-moving water.
“I saw her whiz by me on her butt, then I got knocked down,” Gordon said. “We went across the road, under a barbed wire fence, down about a 4- or 5-foot drop and down the wash.”
Neither woman heard the roar of the water as it sped toward them.
Schmechel said she suddenly saw something out of the corner of her eye that was about 4 feet high. It was the water coming up behind her.
“Then I was gone,” she said.
Gordon, also racing down the wash, said she yelled out, “Please God let her (Schmechel) live!”
Gordon reached a point where she said the water had “bifurcated.”
She said she saw Schmechel, her head just above the water, hanging onto a branch on her left and Gordon then went to the right. Gordon was trying to hold onto anything she could grab, and then she pushed under water.
“I thought, ‘This is it,’ “ Gordon said. “But I angled my way onto this little island. I kept saying, ‘Please Lord, let her live. And please Lord, don’t flood my little island.’ “
Finally, Gordon was able to get to a spot where she could get on her hands and knees and crawl out of the raging wash. She said she was lost at first, but then began navigating through mud and slime until she found her way to her front gate. She got home, took a quick shower and told a neighbored to call 911.
No one had seen Schmechel and Gordon go to the wash.
“We would both have died if Karen had not gotten out,” Schmechel said.
The Sheriff’s Search and Rescue Team arrived in the area at 8 p.m., Noland said, They searched until 2 a.m., then stopped because of rattlesnakes.
“The snakes had been washed down and they were everywhere,” Noland said. “They were in the trees, they were in the debris. It wasn’t safe for the rescuers.”
Schmechel found out about the snakes, too.
As she continued getting swept through the wash, now in the dark, she reached a small bank where she was able to grab onto some brush and branches. She saw a small area that she could have climbed onto, but a rattlesnake had already made itself comfortable there, coiled up. She said she poked the reptile with a branch and it slithered away.
But the pathway on the bank began filing with water and Schmechel then decided to float another 60 or 70 feet as she steadied herself by holding onto brush and branches on what felt like a shore. She then found a small inlet and her legs sank into the muck.
Schmechel said she had a torn blouse — the only piece of clothing she had left — and she planned to wave it wildly the moment she heard any voices. She said she heard a few javelinas nearby, but no sounds of humans until about 7:30 the following morning.
“I thought I was going to die, especially when a big chunk of wood with a bunch of stuff over it pushed me under,” she said. “That’s when I said, ‘This is it.’
“But I got out of the water again and found my little spot and just waited.”
She said she began hearing voices in the morning.
“We started hollaring back and forth to each other,” Schmechel said.
Noland said the six volunteers who found Schmechel were “ecstatic.”
She was lifted out of her little spot in the wash and was taken to a Tucson hospital where she stayed for two weeks.
Miraculously, neither Schmechel nor Gordon suffered any serious injuries, except for what Gordon called “river rock road rash.”
Gordon described herself and Schmechel as two “old stubborn German ladies.”
Schmechel meanwhile, said she just wanted people to know what had happened so she can keep others safe.
“Make sure you’ll tell the story so no one ever goes to see the wash,” she said.