WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. — When Elmar Nicely looks hard enough, he can see a wrench sticking out of the dirt. He found it in a large plot of soil up on Mill Hill Drive, where the earth still was soft from the floods that ravaged the neighborhood. A house stood on this dirt just a week ago, the house where his father, sister and nephew lived.
Overlooking the plot of dirt is a makeshift memorial, resting on the place where the walkway met the front door. It’s a place where friends and neighbors leave flowers to remember the family. A place where Elmar Nicely rests.
If you didn’t know a house once stood on the site, you might think it was always an empty lot. The only thing left is the memorial and a couple of tools buried out of sight.
“My dad was always on my butt about these tools. He’d say, ‘Boy, where’d you get that tool?’ ” Elmar Nicely said. “We’d work on things all the time, and I had a bad habit of leaving tools laying there while I’m testing out whatever I’m working on. He’d come in there and I’d already know I was in trouble because he would just start off with, ‘Boy…’ ”
The floodwaters washed away his childhood home, carrying the structure down Howard’s Creek as pieces of the walls and flooring fell away into the water. His father and sister, Hershel and Netaysha Nicely, and his nephew, Dakota Stone, were trapped in the house as it was washed away.
Hershel Nicely, 68, and Stone, 16, drowned in the flood, Elmar Nicely said. Their bodies were found on a golf course at The Greenbrier resort.
Netaysha Nicely, Stone’s mother, has yet to be found. Search crews were out in full force Friday, looking for her and two others missing from Greenbrier County.
Search teams combed through the area again Friday with large metal pipes in hand, tipping over piles of debris and prodding at piles of dirt.
There aren’t a whole lot of places to look. Practically everything on Mill Hill Drive is ruined.
Practically, but some people still tried to salvage anything they could from their homes. This community hugs Howard’s Creek, a normally calm stream that children like to splash around in.
No one here expected that creek to flood.
It was the same creek Elmar Nicely and his brother, Brandon, would stare into for hours as children, fishing for minnows on hot summer afternoons.
The two brothers lived just up the road. When the sun started to set, they would pack up their tackle boxes and walk only a stone’s throw back home, where their father was waiting on the porch.
Elmar Nicely hadn’t been home in 10 years. He now lives in Amarillo, Texas, but said that even with the flood damage, Mill Hill Drive still feels like home.
Netaysha Nicely posted a video to Facebook on June 23 showing her car being washed from the driveway, moments before the house’s foundation gave way. When Elmar saw the posts, he picked up the phone and tried to call his family, to make sure everyone was OK.
No one answered.
He sat for a few hours, weighed down by fear and imagining the worst. Then his brother called with bad news.
“I don’t even care about the driving,” Elmar Nicely said. “It gave me time to think.”
As he drove the more than 20 hours it took to get to West Virginia, he thought about his dad, the 68-year-old who everyone in the family looked up to.
Hershel Nicely served in the U.S. Army around the time of the Vietnam War but never actually went to Vietnam. Instead, he worked on tanks and liked to get his hands on any engine he could.
He had an impressive collection of tools he used whenever neighbors needed help on their cars. Family members say the man worked hard all of his life and kept working hard as he got older. As soon as the sun was up, he was up.
He recently started working part-time at the local Auto Zone parts store and started attending Bethesda Church.
“There was nobody in this community that he did not know and did not know him,” Elmar Nicely said. “He was the most awesome guy, almost as awesome as Dakota.”
Stone went to Greenbrier East High School, over in Lewisburg. He would have been a junior this year, and loved working with the Junior ROTC. He wanted to follow in Hershel’s footsteps and enlist in the military.
Lisa Ferguson, a close relative of Stone, described him as a heartthrob who was loved by all of the kids in town. In fact, most of the flowers and notes at the memorial where the house once stood have come from Stone’s friends.
He’d just taken a job at Hardee’s a few weeks ago, and his grandfather had been his first customer.
“I hope they just find Netaysha, so we can have some closure,” Elmar Nicely said. “She was daddy’s baby girl.”
Netaysha was in her early 30s. She had always lived with her father, and family members say he liked it that way. The Nicely family likes to keep each other close, even if some are across the country in Texas and Tennessee and others are across the Atlantic Ocean, in Germany.
On Sunday, the Nicelys and all of their extended family will hold a funeral service for their lost family members at Bethesda Church. Then, on Monday, they’ll gather together, make a big dinner and try to remember the good times.
“We’ve been here on the mountains for forever, for a century at least,” Elmar Nicely said. “That ain’t going to change.”