Published: 2016-06-03 14:54:00
Updated: 2016-06-04 21:05:04
Posted June 3, 2016 2:54 p.m. EDT
Updated June 4, 2016 9:05 p.m. EDT
FORT HOOD, Texas — Fort Hood commanders were in the process of closing roads on the sprawling Army post in Central Texas when a truck carrying 12 soldiers overturned in a fast-flowing flooded creek during a training exercise, killing nine, officials said Friday.
The principal of Triton High School told WRAL News Friday that one of the soldiers killed in the floods, Eddy Rae'Laurin Gates, 20, was a graduate of the high school in Erwin.
"I'm hoping that this is still a dream, that's what I'm really hoping for," said Gates' mother, Marlene Strongs. "She is always defending someone else. That has been her nature to defend someone else."
Strongs said Gates was assigned to Fort Hood earlier this month and had always wanted to be a part of the military.
"She was such a beautiful young lady and it just grieves me to my heart to know this has happened," said Elizabeth D'herde, Gates' former teacher at Dunn Middle School.
Gates was the homecoming queen during her senior year at Triton High School and returned often to help with the junior ROTC drill team.
"I can't say enough good things about her," said Chip Magnum, principal of Triton High School. "She wanted to give back because it meant a lot to her as a student here."
A vigil for Gates will be held Monday at 8 p.m. at Tart Park in Dunn.
"My sympathy goes out to the family of Rae'Laurin Gates, and the eight other Fort Hood soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice to protect the citizens of our nation," Gov. Pat McCrory said. "Ann and I are praying for her family."
The portion of road on the northern fringe of the post where the Light Medium Tactical Vehicle overturned Thursday hadn't been overrun by water during past floods, Fort Hood spokesman Chris Haug said. The vehicle resembles a flatbed truck with a walled bed and is used to carry troops.
He said during a news conference Friday that the soldiers were being trained on how to operate the 2½-ton truck when it overturned along Owl Creek, about 70 miles north of Austin.
"It was a situation where the rain had come, the water was rising quickly and we were in the process, at the moment of the event, of closing the roads," Haug said.
Soldiers on training exercises regularly contend with high-water situations following heavy rains, he said.
"This was a tactical vehicle and at the time they were in a proper place for what they were training," Haug said. "It's just an unfortunate accident that occurred quickly."
The bodies of two soldiers were found late Thursday night. Three soldiers were found dead shortly after the vehicle overturned. Three others were rescued by personnel traveling in a separate vehicle and hospitalized in stable condition. Maj. Gen. John Uberti said they could be released later Friday.
Aerial and ground crews were searching the 20-mile creek that winds through heavily wooded terrain. Army aircraft, canine search teams, swift-water rescue watercraft and heavy trucks were being used.
Owl Creek Park, where the creek feeds into Lake Belton at the northeast edge of Fort Hood, served as a launching point for Texas Parks and Wildlife game wardens who deployed two sonar boats in the search effort while a state Department of Public Safety helicopter flew overhead. The normally 30- to 40-foot-wide creek at the park was swollen Friday to some 500 feet wide.
The Army has not yet released the names of the dead because it was still notifying relatives.
"This tragedy extends well beyond Fort Hood and the outpouring of support from the country is sincerely appreciated," Uberti said.
The 340-square-mile post, one of the nation's largest, has seen fatal training accidents before. In November 2015, four soldiers were killed when a Black Hawk helicopter crashed during a training exercise. And in June 2007, a soldier who went missing for four days after a solo navigation exercise died from hyperthermia and dehydration while training in 90-degree heat.
Nearly the entire eastern half of Texas, including Fort Hood, was under flash flood warnings or watches.
Southwest of Fort Worth, an apartment complex and two nearby homes were evacuated after saturated ground collapsed and undermined retaining walls Friday morning along Lake Granbury, which is part of the Brazos River. No injuries were reported.
Storms moving in from the Gulf of Mexico threatened to worsen flooding in places like Brazoria and Fort Bend counties, southwest of Houston, where residents near the Brazos were forced from their homes.
The river at Richmond in Fort Bend County, where flood stage is 48 feet, was 54.34 feet near midday Friday, down slightly from Thursday. Farther south in Brazoria County at Rosharon, the last flood gauge before the river empties into the Gulf of Mexico was at 52.47 feet at midday, half a foot higher than 24 hours earlier. Flood stage is 43 feet.
"Total terror, total terror," Alica Matura said after she was one of two people rescued Friday morning from a pickup truck swept off a Brazoria County road by swift water.
"Water was rushing in and I was freaking out, I was shaking," Tony Conte, who was in the truck with her, told Houston television station KTRK. "It's scary and it happens fast."
Also Friday, a third Texas prison near the Brazos River was being evacuated because of flooding. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice began moving about 1,700 inmates from the Ramsey Unit in Rosharon, about 30 miles south of Houston. Some 2,600 inmates at two nearby prisons in Brazoria County were moved out Sunday.
This week's storms are the latest in a string of torrential rains since May 2015 that have put swaths of the state under water. Some areas now overwhelmed by water had run dry two years ago due to drought conditions.
Graczyk reported from Houston. Associated Press writer David Warren contributed from Dallas.