It was a hard choice, but in the end it was no choice at all. A small rescue boat had come up the driveway, offering help. Carl Ellis was with his frail, 73-year-old mother, Wilma Jean. The boat had room for one.
The water was already up to Carl Ellis’s knees, so there was no time to wait for rescuers with more room. His mother would have to go alone.
Using the back of a pickup truck as a gangplank, Ellis helped his mother into the boat, her belongings trussed up in garbage bags. There were no life jackets, but it was a short trip and the rescuers promised to come right back for him.
He never saw them – or his mother – again.
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Any catastrophic weather event has its measurable aspects: inches of rain, speed of wind, cubic yards of debris. Others are incalculable: waterlogged photos, frayed communities, the invisible moorings of permanence and safety swept away.
But perhaps the worst things are the unknowable, forever lost in the confusion, mysteries like what happened to Wilma Jean Ellis, who was rescued not once, but twice, and who nonetheless became a casualty of the storm.
Powerful stories from Hurricane Harvey told by New York Times video journalists. NY Times
At the time her son believed she was being ferried to higher ground, she was found floating face down in the floodwater. In what became one of the day’s elegiac moments, Wilma Jean Ellis was resuscitated by a group of civilian boaters from Louisiana, part of an informal organization known as the Cajun Navy. That moment was hailed on national television and social media as an example of heroism and the bond between two hurricane-pummeled Gulf Coast states.
But with a huge, chaotic rescue effort underway, much of it handled by private citizens who took matters into their own hands, few people paid attention to Wilma Jean Ellis’s next 10 hours.
One Woman, Twice Saved
The peak of desperation for northeast Houston residents inundated by Hurricane Harvey came on Aug. 28. Greens Bayou had swelled to a record 43.4 feet where it crossed Tidwell Road, dislodging cars and ripping apartment walls down to their studs.
In the middle-class, predominantly black neighborhood where Wilma Jean Ellis lived in a three-bedroom brick house, people woke in the wee hours to find the water seeping in. Hundreds – if not thousands – of people escaped in watercraft of every description. The water turned thick and oily, boiling with angry clusters of fire ants.
Sometime around 7 a.m., three men in a boat motored up the driveway of Ellis’s house on Drifting Winds Drive.
Ellis was an energetic woman – a committed Jehovah’s Witness who made boudin sausage from scratch, played video games on a Sega Genesis, drove a gargantuan pickup truck with a grille the size of a portcullis and enjoyed the occasional nip of Windsor Canadian.
But she had recently had surgery, followed by a stroke, family members said.
So Carl Ellis didn’t stop to ask exactly who the men in the boat were – he just helped his mother aboard. She still wore the hospital bracelet from her recent treatment. Unbeknown to him, the boat had barely reached the corner stop sign when his mother somehow fell into the floodwater.
“They were trying to make a right, but the boat tipped over,” said a neighbor, Desmond Clark, who was peering through the rain from his window on Parkway Forest Drive. He added, “I didn’t see nobody go get her.”
Clark said the person in the water floated one direction, accompanied by the garbage bags, while the others propped the boat against a truck to drain it, then climbed back in and headed the opposite way.
“I’m not thinking to myself, ‘Oh, she’s drowning,’ because she didn’t look like she was drowning,” Clark said. “She looked like she was swimming.”
Soon three boaters from St. Tammany Parish, Louisiana, members of the Cajun Navy, saw something floating in the water. At first, they thought it was a trash bag. Then they realized it was a body.
Two of them, identified in news reports as Ricky Berrigan and Donnie Davenport, jumped out while a third, Joshua Lincoln, stayed with the boat, Lincoln said.
The woman had lost one of her dentures, and the other was blocking her airway, according to Lincoln. She appeared to be dead.
“I don’t know what made them do it,” he said, but they started performing chest compressions. “After that she started breathing slowly.”
Unable to lift her into the boat, the men recruited two neighbors to help. “She was alive,” said one, Brando Flanagan. “She was nodding. I just told her, ‘You’re going to be all right, mami. You’re going to be all right.’” He cringed, remembering. “I looked in her eye. I told her she was going to be OK.”
At the time, hospitals were virtually impossible to reach. The boaters took Wilma Jean Ellis to the nearest dry corner, where people were sheltering at a day care center and a gas station. “I was concerned that she wouldn’t set up in a chair too well,” Lincoln said, “so we got them to say they would be extra watchful of her.”
He snapped a photo of her, still wearing the black turban-style head covering she had left home in, with a cozy brown blanket draped over her. He took a close-up of the hospital bracelet bearing her name and date of birth.
Just after 8 a.m., another evacuee posted on Facebook that a Wilma Ellis had been rescued and needed help.
More than 10 hours later, Ellis arrived at Lyndon B. Johnson Hospital in a body bag. She was brought in, the records said, by the Coast Guard – or maybe, a hospital spokesman said later, the Fire Department. The hospital bracelet was missing. Wilma Ellis was a Jane Doe.
Hailed as a Hero
That night, China Davis was at the hospital where she worked when the phone rang. “Somebody called me and told me that my sister was floating in the water,” she said. “'China, your sister is on CNN.’”
Davis was confused – her nephew, Carl, had told her that Wilma Jean Ellis had been taken to a nearby school. He was still waiting to be rescued himself.
But there was the voice of Lincoln on television, describing how he had found Ellis in an “extremely heavy current.”
The newscasters hung on Lincoln’s words. “You were just moved to act?” they asked. “How is she doing now?”
As is common in natural disasters, accurate information was scarce. On Tuesday, Lincoln told MSNBC, “She is now with her family, they say, and doing just fine.” He had gotten an address, he said, so he could return her dentures.
But Ellis’s family did not know where she was.
They called hospitals and shelters. They got in touch with Lincoln, who joined the search by posting on social media and doing follow-up interviews. One man said he had seen her at a shelter. But still, no one could find her.
It was not until Thursday that Davis received a call from the morgue.
Combing Through Clues
Ellis, who spent her childhood picking cotton in rural north Louisiana and later became a nurse in Houston, was a matriarchal figure in an extended clan – she had seven siblings, six children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. They called her Mama, or Jean.
To find her, they had been sifting anxiously through the meager clues, left like shreds of storm debris snagged on a chain-link fence. But now that they knew she was dead, those clues refused to add up. How, if she had nearly drowned, had the turban remained on her head? In the photograph taken by Lincoln, didn’t she look dry?
More important, where had she been left, and with whom? Had there been foul play? Or had someone, some of them wondered, simply failed to care enough about a lone, old black woman?
The red tape did not help. Her son, Carl, went to get her medical records, but came away empty-handed because he had no death certificate. The autopsy report would not be available for weeks. Wilma Jean Ellis had been identified using fingerprints, the medical examiner’s office said.
But there was an official cause of death: drowning. That raised more questions – if she had been revived, how had she drowned? Had she been fished from the water only to be swallowed up again? Could she have gone through something destructive enough to wrest the hospital bracelet from her wrist?
“My mom wouldn’t have wandered off,” Carl Ellis said. He wondered if she had been left to fend for herself. “If I saw an elderly man or an elderly woman, I wouldn’t do that. I would stay with them, make sure they’re all right.”
But medical experts said drowning could be listed as the cause of death even if Wilma Jean Ellis initially survived. The autopsy could have found fluid lurking in her lungs, or the near drowning could have led to fatal complications because of weakened organs, unbalanced blood chemistry or a swollen airway. With immediate medical attention, she might have survived. If emergency medical workers had tried to treat her at any point, they may well have cut off the hospital bracelet to get it out of the way.
Wilma Jean Ellis may have been watched over, but nobody seems to remember. A man who worked at the gas station where Ellis was first dropped off said he could not recall seeing her during the storm. Less than 2 miles away, close to an emergency staging ground, was another gas station, where hundreds of evacuees were taken.
Employees there did not remember Ellis, either. But one, Karim Musani, took a second look at the photo Lincoln had taken. “I can remember this brown thing,” he said, indicating the plush blanket. “I picked it up. When I picked it up, it was so heavy.”
More than a week after his mother’s death, Carl Ellis pulled his mother’s truck into the driveway of her ruined home; his own car had flooded. Wearing a pair of denim overalls, he prepared for the job of mucking out and sorting through.
The day before, he had avoided a gathering of 13 family members on the driveway, and still seemed lost in self-reproach over what had happened. Asked what he had thought when he had heard of his mother’s rescue on the news, he demurred. “When my mom left here,” he said, “I thought that was her rescue.”
A few days later, Lincoln drove back to Houston for Ellis’s funeral. Emotionally overwhelmed, he said, he got lost on the way. Lincoln said he had been “drastically” affected by finding, then losing, Ellis. “The whole thing just sounds spiritual in that I was reborn, or born again, when I found her,” he said. “It’s like I can’t tell a lie anymore.”
But at the memorial service, he encountered a family still under strain from the unanswered – perhaps never to be answered – questions about Ellis’s final hours.
Sandra Campbell, another of Ellis’s sisters, said she had tried to help. “I tried to get them one by one and sit down and explain something to them: time and unforeseen occurrences befalls us all,” she said, paraphrasing Scripture. “There’s only two people who know what really happened – Jean, and Jehovah.”