Rainelle man died in his wife’s arms as floodwaters rose

Gerda Mae Thompson, 83, at her home in Rainelle Wednesday. Thompson’s husband, Edward, 85, died of heart failure as the two waited to be rescued during flooding on June 24.
Suit jackets hang outside the home of Edward and Gerda Mae Thompson to dry after flooding in Rainelle. Edward Thompson always wore a jacket and tie. The radio antenna was added to the home years ago so the couple could hear their son, Keith Thompson, call sports games on the radio.
Shirts hang on a fence to dry outside the Thompson home Wednesday.
Fragments of birdhouses under construction from Edward Thompson’s wood shop.
Courtesy photo
Edward Thompson.

RAINELLE, W.Va. — In the end, Edward Thompson died the same way he had spent most of his life: side by side with his wife of 65 years.

By the morning of June 24, Edward and Gerda Thompson’s Rainelle home had been filled with chest-high water for more than seven hours, as the couple stood in their living-room clinging to each other.

There was nowhere to sit. The flood water had entered their house as they lay in bed. It was ankle deep by the time they realized it had crept in around them.

It soon rose more than three feet and left both of them barefoot and shivering. The contents of the home they had shared for 48 years were either submerged or floating around them. Couch cushions and furniture were bumping into the walls and windows.

As they waited for help or for the water to recede, Edward Thompson gently laid his head on his wife’s shoulder. They were both weak, their 80-year-old bodies exhausted from the hours-long effort to stay above water. When she asked if he was all right, there was no reply.

At that point, Gerda Thompson knew her husband, the father of her child and her constant companion since she was a teenager was gone. He died of heart failure.

That was the last memory she had before she passed out, was pulled through a window by a rescue crew and transported more than 35 miles to Summersville Regional Medical Center.

She woke up hours later scared and confused, but the memory of her husband’s head resting against hers was still clearly implanted in her mind. So, too, are the other memories of their six-and-a-half decades spent together.

She can remember the first time she saw him. He was playing a mandolin at a church gathering in a small school house.

“I thought it was the cutest thing I ever saw,” she said.

She can see the 20-year-old version of him dressed in the navy blue suit he wore for their wedding. She had on a blue dress of her own. None of their family members or friends from the small coal camps where they were raised had been invited to the private ceremony inside the pastor’s home.

She will always remember the smile that he gave her only days before the flood hit. He had been suffering from the symptoms of Alzheimer’s, but that smile let her know that he knew her face.

“All of our life together, I just felt safe with this man. I just leaned on him and relied on him,” she said. “Some women have it made, and don’t know it. I had it made, and I knew it.”

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Keith Thompson is just grateful that rescuers got to his mother in time. He has had to bear the pain of losing his father, but he is not focusing on the last seven hours of his life. He’d rather remember the first 85 years.

“None of us get out of here alive,” he said, as he stood behind his childhood home. “The chapters just end differently.”

Growing up, Keith Thompson remembers his father as a well-dressed man who worked at the Rainelle Kroger for more than 40 years. He likes to refer to him as an “old-school grocery store manager.” The only break he took from the grocery business was the two years he spent in Germany as member of the U.S. Army.

The man was always dressed in a suit jacket and tie, he said. The collar of his shirt always firmly buttoned, even at the end of a long day. It wasn’t until years later that Keith Thompson, who is now a radio broadcaster, realized that not everyone dressed in a suit and tie for work.

This week, those same dress shirts and suit jackets that his father had worn to work and church were hung over the porch and along the fence in the backyard. Above them was the radio antenna that had been installed so Edward Thompson could hear his son’s sports broadcasts from Beckley, where he works for WJLS.

He was so devoted to listening to his son announce games that he would sit in his parked car during the evenings. It was the only place he could pick up his son’s voice coming over the airwaves. Only later did they get the antenna installed on the back of the house.

That was the type of father he was. He was always there, always interested in hearing about his son’s life. Even after being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, Keith Thompson could always tell when his father recognized him, because his dad would ask two specific questions: How’s your dog? And when’s your next game?

The last time he had seen his dad was on Father’s Day.

“He was a good man, and a good dad,” he said. “You can’t ask for much more than that.”

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Only days after losing her husband and narrowly escaping the flood herself, Gerda Thompson watched as her son, along with volunteers from a church, pulled waterlogged items out of her house.

She sat on a wicker chair as her possessions — and her husband’s — were carried away. She held herself together as the damaged mementos of her marriage and her life paraded past her. Her son’s soaked baby photos were carried out, followed by the pictures of her 50th wedding anniversary.

But when they began pulling the old, heavily damaged piano from the home, she couldn’t let it go. Nobody had played it for years. She never took the lessons, like she intended to. But it was a gift from her husband around the time of their 25th wedding anniversary. It was too precious to part with.

“It’s awful hard to watch the water come up and ruin everything you have worked for,” she said Wednesday, as she sat outside the gutted home that is already being rebuilt by volunteers.

It isn’t the physical damage to the home that preoccupies her. It’s the man she is reminded of.

“I feel closer to him here than anywhere else,” she said. “I can feel his presence here.”

She recalls the man who liked to travel in his Lincoln to New England and Kentucky during the fall, the man who enjoyed building birdhouses, butterfly boxes and squirrel feeders in the backyard and the man who loved to eat, even though he never seemed to add a pound of weight to his skinny frame.

His favorite meal, she said, was baked steak, mashed potatoes and gravy. For dessert, she often made him white coconut cake, with peaches on the side.

“He loved peaches,” she said quietly. “I’m not sure I can eat peaches anymore.”

Her hand was on her chin as she thought. She still had bandages over the scrapes and bruises she received when she was pulled from the home.

On recent nights, she has found herself turning over in bed, searching for the man she slept next to for more than six decades. Half asleep, she still expects to put her hand on his chest and feel his heartbeat.

It’s a habit she picked up over years. It’s a habit that she has been incapable of breaking in the two short weeks.

With her partner gone and their house being restored as best it can, she’s still deciding whether she can live alone in the home they built together.

“I don’t know if I can,” she said.

Reach Andrew Brown at andrew.brown@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-5104 or follow @Andy_Ed_Brown on Twitter.

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