DRAMATIC RESCUE – A Tennessee Highway Patrol pilot rescued nine people, including five members of a Gibson County family, from a flash flood at Cummins Falls State Park in Middle Tennessee on Wednesday. Bradford High School principal Shane Paschall and his wife Monica can be seen in this photo waiting on their turn to go up in the chopper. Paschall’s mother, Peggy McDaniel, was swept away by the strong current and missing for two days. Rangers and emergency personnel recovered her body Friday afternoon. McDaniel was a Paris, TN, native. Photo courtesy Putnam County Rescue Squad via Herald-Citizen.
By Crystal Burns
Dylan Thomas remembers a voice clearly instructing him, “Get on your back.”
Moments earlier, Shane and Monica Paschall, their children Dylan and Emma Grace Thomas and Luke and Alli Paschall, and Shane’s mom Peggy McDaniel were standing in ankle deep water in the Blackburn Fork State Scenic River. The sun was shining, and the Gibson County family was among about 40 hikers and swimmers enjoying the day in Cummins Falls State Park north of Cookeville in Middle Tennessee.
The family noticed that a boy had slipped and was beginning to panic. Shane said he and his kids were trying to make their way over to the boy when the water began to rise. The rocks they walked on to get to that point quickly disappeared, and the family was stranded.
“Our only choice was to stand there,” Shane said.
“We had nowhere else to go,” Monica said. She heard a loud rush of water and said the clear falls changed color.
“It looked like chocolate milk it was so brown,” Monica recalled.
The family held hands as two rangers tried to get life jackets out to them, but the water swept Dylan, Allie, and Peggy off their feet, carrying them away from their loved ones. Monica says she remembers hearing Dylan yell, “Mom,” but what the rest of the family heard was Dylan telling her, “Mom, if you let me go, I’ll be okay.”
Caught in the strong current, Dylan was careful to let his feet lead his body. He did his best to keep his chin up, and he listened to that voice. Floating on his back with his head resting on his backpack, Dylan spied a branch, maneuvered his body towards it, grabbed it, and hung on until two men could pull him onto the shore.
“I was exhausted,” Dylan said. “One of the men kind of slung me over his shoulder and took me to his family where they laid me on a rock.”
According to multiple news reports, Tennessee Highway Patrol pilot Lt. Brad Lund was nearby when the flash flooding occurred. He recruited a park ranger to help with the rescue, giving the ranger instructions as they flew to the site. Once over the falls, Lund spotted Dylan and followed the 17-year-old as he was swept away.
One by one, Dylan, Emma Grace, Luke, the small boy the Paschall family had tried to help, Monica and Shane were flown to safety. In the helicopter, the ranger told Monica that her son was fine.
“I started to cry,” she said. “I knew my kids were safe.”
Alli wasn’t in the water long. After being separated from her family, she grabbed onto a log that pushed her back to the bank. She escaped with only a scratch on her knee, but she waited three hours for rescue. She and a handful of others were stranded on the other side of the river. Rangers eventually secured a zip line to get Alli and the group back to safety.
Shane said all of those who were rescued gathered at a ranger’s station where their number grew steadily. Alli joined her family about 6 p.m. A ranger later approached Shane to tell him that crews were having a hard time accounting for his mother, but other survivors said they had seen her.
They called off the official search at dusk, but several rangers stayed overnight.
The family had one phone – Alli had left her cell in the car, and Shane had left the vehicle unlocked. He called his sister Julie. Luke and Alli called their mom Jennifer and her husband Clint Carnal, and Dylan and Emma Grace talked to their dad Gibson County Sheriff Paul Thomas and his wife April. Family and friends began making their way to Cookeville while those in West Tennessee prayed for the Paschalls’ safety.
Shane stayed with the search party that night. Monica took Dylan to Livingston Regional Hospital in Cookeville where he was diagnosed with rhabdomyolysis, a breakdown of muscle tissue that releases a damaging protein into the blood and harms the kidneys. Doctors at Livingston conferred with a specialist at Vanderbilt Hospital in Nashville and considered moving him there. The decline of his kidneys plateaued, and he was released from Livingston Saturday.
At his home in Milan Sunday, Dylan said he is feeling much better although he still has some stomach pain.
Monica said that one of the men that pulled Dylan from the water told her, “Your son’s a fighter. He was fighting all the way.”
“I’m proud that my son didn’t give up,” Sheriff Thomas said. “I’m proud that he used every ounce of strength he had to fight through that. He’s my hero right now. He really is.”
The search for Peggy McDaniel continued Thursday morning. Shane said the Cummins Falls staff had asked for a dozen rangers from other parks to help, and 50 showed up. Friday morning, two rangers from McDaniel’s hometown of Paris joined the efforts.
“It was phenomenal,” Shane said. “They were doing absolutely anything and everything they could do.”
Shane said he and his sister saw the emotion on the rescuers’ faces when they were called in because the water was too high or too rough. They saw men who had never met their mother crying because they couldn’t find her.
“I really feel like they searched for my mom like it was their mom,” he said.
Friday morning as he drove to the park, Shane said he was praying and listening to specific songs when “a peace kind of came over me.” That afternoon, rangers told the family they had spotted a body. A couple of hours later they were back to say they had identified the 73-year-old.
“She was a fighter,” Shane said. “She would not have been happy they were calling her elderly,” he joked, referring to the headlines of an elderly woman missing.
“Mama was a doer,” Shane said. “She’d do anything for anybody. She would be embarrassed to know how much attention she’s getting.”
Shane and Julie spoke to local media during a press conference at the state park Friday afternoon. They thanked everyone involved in the rescue and recovery, and they thanked their friends, family, and the strangers from across the state and country who prayed for them.
“It’s been overwhelming how much prayer and support we’ve received,” Shane says.
Shane and Monica work in Bradford where he is the high school principal and she works with intervention and title programs at the elementary school. Bradford Special School District officials kept the district Facebook page updated with any nuggets of news Shane could get to them, asking students, staff, and the community to pray.
Dylan and Emma Grace attend Milan schools, and Luke and Alli go to South Gibson County High School. The kids’ friends were also rallying prayer support on social media. Some even visited Dylan in the hospital.
The Gibson County Sheriff’s Office posted a prayer request Thursday that reached more than 51,000 people on Facebook. Shane said he has gotten messages from people he doesn’t know, encouraging him and comforting his family.
After they were reunited, Monica sought out the men who helped Dylan. She thanked them for telling her boy to get on his back, which led him to the branch that he clung to until they could get to him. The men said they didn’t yell anything to Dylan, and they didn’t hear anyone give him any instructions.
“God was there the whole time,” Monica said. “He never left us.”
About the flooding
WKRN News 2 in Nashville posted a story Thursday that said several rounds of showers and thunderstorms rolled across Middle Tennessee on Wednesday, leading to creeks and streams rising suddenly in Putnam and Smith counties. A National Weather Service official said somewhat heavy rains fell further upstream in Cookeville and washed toward the park, helping cause the problem.
Shane Paschall said it sprinkled on his family as they walked down to the falls, but the sun was shining by the time they got there. The News 2 report also noted it wasn’t raining over the falls when the water rose so quickly.
News 2 also spoke to the THP pilot, Lt. Lund, who said he had never seen that type of flooding at Cummins Falls. Lund rescued nine people.