WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS — The only thing holding the family together was a few extension cords.
Jason Phillips, 15, tied himself to his father and then to his younger brother and sister using whatever random cords he could find in their home on Mill Hill Drive. By this point, they knew they were going into the flood water raging just outside the door, the water that would go on to knock their home off its foundation.
But the water was too strong.
There’s no way of knowing how fast it really was. Neighbors said it looked to be rushing more than 20 miles an hour. The Phillips family said it felt more like 40 as they tried to swim through it.
The water rushed so fast that it severed one extension cord, sending one child one way and the rest of the family another.
Mykala Phillips, 14, is still missing. No one has seen her since the flood destroyed her family’s home last Thursday. Search crews are still looking for Mykala, though she is presumed dead. Rescuers found two bodies in Greenbrier county Saturday, but no names were released. Mykala’s family was not notified if her body was one of the two found. At least one person remains missing.
For a week, Mykala’s family hasn’t given up hope that rescuers will find her alive somewhere. They wait by the phone for the daily updates from rescue crews.
“It’s never going to be back to normal. It’ll never be back to normal, ever. We’re OK with that,” Mykala’s mother, Becky Phillips, 36, said. “We can pick up and redo. All the stuff in that house, that’s obsolete, you can buy that all back.”
No amount of money could buy back her family — her husband James Phillips, 44, her sons Jason and Carter Phillips, 15 and 7 respectively.
Becky had been on the phone with her kids all afternoon when the storm hit. They were texting and sending each other Snapchats. She works in housekeeping at The Greenbrier, and when she tried to go down to the basement of the resort for a smoke break, it was already flooded.
She called her kids to tell them to go out back and check the creek. The water hadn’t even crested the banks yet. Still, she told them to get out of there as fast as they could.
The Phillips’ house is almost on an island of its own across a rickety old wooden bridge that goes over Wades Creek. That creek feeds into Howard creek, which lines the back of the Phillips’ house. In front of the house is a mountain with a gnarly slope of tree overgrowth and poison ivy.
Howard Creek was rising, and Wades Creek had already flooded the bridge. They were trapped in their little neighborhood with nowhere to go but up.
“They were going to go up into the woods right behind our house, there’s a cave back there,” Becky said. “That’s initially where they were going to go, but 911 told them to stay in the house, that the worst of it was over.”
But it wasn’t.
Water had started to creep up under the door and was rising faster and faster. By that point, the hope of emergency officials rescuing them in time didn’t seem likely. Becky said they knew they were going to have to get into the water.
She said Jason Phillips wants to be a Marine some day. He’s a member of Junior ROTC at Greenbrier East High School in Lewisburg, so he knows how to tie a bunch of different knots used in the military.
He rounded up all the extension cords he could and tied himself to his family in a line, the father leading the pack, followed by Jason, then Carter then Mykala. James broke his back three years ago, so he’s not able to move around as well as the rest of the family. Mykala and Jason planned to keep Carter in between them.
As luck would have it, there was one life jacket sitting on the living room floor. It was there because Becky helped her mom clean out her house in Tennessee and brought the life jacket back for her niece. She hadn’t gotten around to giving it to her.
Jason wrestled the life jacked onto his little brother, and off they went.
“If it wasn’t for Jason — I’m blessed, you know, I’m really blessed,” Becky said. “I’m looking for just one person, not four. My son, he’s so level-headed and he doesn’t panic.
“He wants to be a Marine, so he doesn’t panic or anything like that. If it wasn’t for Jason, I would be looking for four people.”
The family tried to climb out of the window in the kitchen, but that wouldn’t work. James got his foot stuck between a tree and the window. The water was rushing so fast that it knocked him down, twisting his leg and breaking his foot.
After Jason helped him dislodge his foot, they climbed back into the window. Panic set in.
They couldn’t get out through the kitchen window, emergency officials were nowhere in sight and the water kept rising.
A sudden wave of water came hurtling down Howard Creek, something that looked like it came out of a movie. They watched as it crashed into their house, knocking the home off its foundation and sending it skidding down the road. They had no choice but to climb out the living room window and into the water.
Just as they were in the water, rushing down Mill Hill Drive, one of the extension cords snapped.
“The knot didn’t come out, because my son ties military knots,” Becky said. “That didn’t come undone. The actual extension cord broke. They went one way and she went the other.”
The family watched as Mykala rushed away from them, screaming for someone to help her. They saw her body go under the water as the current dragged her underneath the porch of a house down the street.
Around 3 p.m. that day, Becky had lost touch with her family. No one was picking up their phones.
She set off down Main Street, walking as fast as she could for her house. It’s normally a 15-minute walk from The Greenbrier to her home, but this time it took two hours just to get to the gas stations in town that sit at the mouth of Mill Hill Drive.
The water reached her waist, and she was barely strong enough to power against the current. Somehow she did.
There was no way she could go down the road to her house, so she went to her niece’s house behind the gas stations where there was slightly higher ground.
Down the road, Becky’s husband and children were battling the same water, only deeper.
Whenever debris would come hurtling toward them, James Phillips would turn so that his body protected his kids from impact. Because he was submerged to his neck in water, most of the wood and trees and bits of houses that hit him smacked him right in the face. All but 11 of his teeth were knocked out.
As the water carried them down the road, James grabbed the house and held onto it as tightly as he could. He said he heard a woman’s voice telling him to bust into the window of the house if he could to try and get out of the water. The woman was stuck in a tree with her dog.
A rescue crew eventually scooped them up and evacuated them from the area. Becky was still at her niece’s at 8 p.m. when she got a call from her son Jason in the back seat of an ambulance.
“And he said, ‘Mom, I don’t know where Mykala is at.’ I don’t remember much about the conversation after that,” Becky said. “I was hysterical at that point, but just for a minute. Then the whole mother thing kicked in.”
The mother thing stayed kicked in for the entire week. Becky doesn’t usually let herself cry. Instead, she’s holding together the family trying to come to terms with what happened. She tries to stay strong for Carter, a boy who always stays positive, and for Jason, a boy who doesn’t like to share his feelings.
Jason was close friends with Dakota Stone, a 16-year-old boy from down the street who drowned in the flood. They were both in Junior ROTC at Greenbrier East High School. Becky said losing both Mykala and Dakota on the same day has been hard on Jason.
She reminds her family of the good memories they have with Mykala and Dakota. How she loved to draw all day, especially pencil sketches of Mickey Mouse. How she could talk on the phone with her friends for hours. How she always tried to help people.
And Becky reminds her family to pray.
Even though Becky can’t get off work on Sundays to go with them, the rest of her family goes to church almost every Sunday. Mykala was baptized in May at White Sulphur Baptist Church, a small congregation about two blocks from her house.
Randy Gilliam, Becky’s brother-in-law and Mykala’s uncle, is the pastor. He’s been consoling his community, meeting with them and doing what he can to rebuild his church that was wrecked by the flooding.
“You know, God gives you grace,” Gilliam said. “The Bible says that. It says God’s grace is sufficient, and it is.”
Reach Jake Jarvis at
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