Walking On Water


Almost from the start, reporters covering the August 30, 2003, flood deaths on Interstate 35 focused more on Robert Rogers’ reaction to his family’s drowning than how he escaped the same fate.

A freak rainstorm washed over the Kansas Turnpike near Emporia that night and carried away seven vehicles, including the Rogerses’ minivan and one man who had been trying to save the family inside it.

Robert Rogers managed to survive, but the bodies of three of his children were found the next morning, still strapped into the seats of the overturned van. A few hours later, his eldest daughter’s corpse was discovered against a barbed-wire fence. Three days after the flood, the bodies of Rogers’ wife, Melissa, and the rescuer, Al Larsen, were found in a retention pond more than a mile from the highway.

However, what seemed to captivate the media then — and again at the event’s anniversary in August — was the curious way that Rogers reacted.

As if he were filled with joy.

Media outlets from local papers to national television broadcasts related Rogers’ description of his own survival as a miracle. Again and again, Rogers has said that even as the water rose and began filling his minivan, even as the vehicle was washed into what had become a roaring river, even as he was sucked through a window into the water, even as he returned to an empty house, he felt the peace of a loving God.

Within weeks of the funerals for his wife and children, Roberts had quit his job as an electrical engineer and begun a full-time ministry devoted to speaking about the last moments of his children and his wife, telling the tale as an uplifting one about God’s grace.

He created a Web page to tally his church and media appearances. This week, he will speak at a conference in Wichita, a mortuary in Hutchinson, and two churches in Fort Wayne, Indiana. He doesn’t charge a set fee for his testimony, but he does accept “love offerings.” The former music major and café pianist also sells two CDs for $16 each through the Web site.

Like the reporters who first told his story, the church audiences who see Rogers today tend to fixate on the strength of his faith in the wake of tragedy. Rarely does anyone ask one of the most obvious questions.

How exactly did he walk away from the “wall of water” that drowned his wife and kids?

There was something otherworldly about Rogers’ description of events that night, so the Pitch tracked down rescue workers and law-enforcement officials who were on the scene to ask them about Rogers’ account.

We were surprised by their reactions. Despite all of the media attention on the Rogers family’s story, we were told repeatedly that the Pitch was the first news organization to ask basic questions about what actually happened.

We also learned that rescue workers, more than a year after they first asked Rogers for a detailed account, still have serious questions about his responses.

Rogers’ story of how he escaped injury that night, they say, simply doesn’t make sense.

On a recent Tuesday evening, Rogers is preparing to make an appearance at Providence Baptist Church on the extreme northern edge of the Kansas City metro area.

Dressed in a tweed sports jacket and a mock turtleneck, his hair gelled to attention, Rogers seems a little overdressed for the 100 chatty people who have filled the small sanctuary for the third night of the church’s “Fall Revival.” But Rogers has brought company: a camera crew filming the event for the Billy Graham Crusade.

From the piano, Rogers leads the service through several praise songs, the words of which flash on a video screen above the altar. The last is a version of “Agnus Dei.”

“I’m sure this is one of the first songs my family sang as they entered heaven,” he says.

Rogers begins his testimony with a slide show.

“I’m going to take you on a journey with my family here,” he says.

One by one, the screen displays images from the Rogers family photo album.

There’s his smiling “sweet pea from China,” he says — Alenah, the not-quite-2-year-old for whose adoption the Rogerses took out a second mortgage on their home. There’s 8-year-old Makenah, who took her role as big sister seriously. Then Zachary, born with Down syndrome, standing next to a half-empty bucket of fresh blueberries. And Nicholas, who was always trying to get involved in whatever project was going on. “Hey, Dad, can I help you?”

And their mother, sweet Melissa from Horton, Kansas, who never needed makeup and who more than kept up her half of their “true fairy-tale romance.”

In one picture, Rogers and his children line up behind a picnic table adorned with a green-checked tablecloth. “While it’s excruciating that they’re not here anymore, the things we have are not our own,” Rogers says. “The things we have are on loan.”

In another photo, the family members lean in, sopping wet and mugging for the camera at a Liberty water park. “The kids loved water,” Rogers says. “It’s kind of ironic.”

There was no wall of water.

Picking up on an erroneous headline in The Emporia Gazette, Rogers has repeatedly referred to a 7-foot wave of rainwater that carried away the seven automobiles on I-35, as if some sort of apocalyptic flash flood had suddenly swept over the highway, tossing cars in its wake.

Actually, the water was never deeper than 4 feet above the road surface. Rogers and his family sat in the slowly rising water for almost twenty minutes, fending off attempts by two rescuers to pull them from their vehicle.

When the Pitch asked Rogers to discuss the event, he agreed to answer questions at his Liberty home, but when a reporter arrives he’s reticent. He makes it clear he would rather talk about what has happened since then.

“The real story is the response to that night … using a tragedy for the good to touch people’s lives in a positive way,” he explains.

On the night of the flood, the Rogers family was on its way back from a wedding in Wichita. Melissa was driving. The children were sleeping. Visibility was poor, and Rogers says Melissa couldn’t see the water flowing onto the turnpike from Jacob Creek until they had splashed into it.

They had driven into a lake that had been created by the overflowing creek and the freeway’s center divider. Water had already overwhelmed the 7-foot-by-7-foot culvert under the highway and was building up against the concrete median. The divider was acting as a dam and had collected enough water on the northbound side to stall out cars.

Rogers says that a truck driver pulled to the shoulder near the divider and started to plow through. Melissa decided to follow. At the water’s deepest point, however, the truck suddenly stopped, leaving the minivan boxed in among the truck, the median and other cars. The van’s engine died as water swirled around the front fender.

Rogers says he and his wife decided together it was too dangerous to try to leave their van and walk to safety with the children.

The water seeped in, soaking the floorboards and forming a pool in the interior of the car. The dampness awoke Makenah, who had the longest legs of the children. She undid her seatbelt and moved between the front seats. Soon the other children were awake, too.

Meanwhile, outside, other drivers were getting out of their stalled cars and walking away. But Robert and Melissa decided not to go anywhere.

“What if one of us had slipped?” Rogers tells the Pitch. “What if one of us had dropped one child? What if we couldn’t take all four and had to leave one behind? Who would you leave behind? That’s not a question you can answer…. We were going to remain together as a family.”

They passed up their best chance at survival when Ryan Lane came to the window. Lane and Al Larsen, who later were hailed as heroes, waded through the frigid water, helping people get out of their stalled cars. Larsen carried an elderly woman to safety. Both Larsen and Lane walked with a man to higher ground. Thanks to the two men, of the seven cars that were eventually washed from the pavement, only one had people inside.

Lane says he spent a couple of minutes trying to coax the Rogers family out of their van when the water was about waist deep. Knocking on the passenger-side window, he says, he could tell there were people inside, but he couldn’t see them very well or hear them.

“When I didn’t get a response, I just kind of moved on,” says Lane, who has since moved from Lawrence back to his home state of Colorado.

Rogers says the electric windows worked only intermittently by then and that he couldn’t hear what Lane was saying.

“The focus was … all of our kids were crying. I was paying attention to them,” Rogers says. “It was clear by that point we could not get out and God was going to have to save us.”

Larsen, however, made another attempt to extract the Rogers family. By then, the water had crested the 31-inch median and was pouring over it onto the southbound lanes of the highway. Rogers says the water had reached the bottom of the van’s windows.

Rogers says he barely followed the conversation between his wife and Larsen through the driver’s side window that she’d earlier opened slightly. Rogers says Melissa and Larsen talked about the possibility of tying the children together with rope, but they had only bungee cords. He recalls that she asked Larsen how he was able to stand in the swirling water.

And then he wasn’t.

“I remember hearing Melissa scream,” Rogers says. “She said, ‘Al. Al. … I thought I saw him slip.'”

But Rogers says the rain and water were deafening, and he was too busy with the children.

While the water rose to dangerous levels and Larsen was washed away trying to free the last people in danger, Rogers was quoting scriptures and singing praise songs to his children.

Moments after Larsen was swept from the road, several 20-foot-long, 10,000-pound sections of concrete median gave way, ripping up swaths of asphalt and releasing the floodwaters and, with them, the Rogerses’ van.

“There we were, plunged into the deep,” Rogers says. “I had no fear during that time. That van was filled with God’s peace.”

With the van riding the flood, Rogers says he and his wife were still deciding what to do.

“We knew we only had a moment,” Rogers says. “We both said, ‘We’ve got to knock out the window. That is our only choice.’

“I can’t tell you our orientation, whether we were upside down or right side up,” he explains. “I said, ‘Let me do it.’ I said, ‘I want to kick it out, because I still have my shoes on.’ I was the strongest, the best swimmer, still had my shoes on. ‘I’m the one to do this.'”

According to Rogers, he and his wife then traded places.

Rogers claims that, in chest-deep water, with Makenah between them as the van pitched and tossed, he and his wife had a rational discussion about what to do. Rogers says they talked about their footwear — he still was wearing shoes and would be more effective kicking glass. Then they traded places so Rogers could kick out the driver’s side window.

He acts out the scene in his living room. Perched on the black piano bench next to his Steinway, wearing socks that glow white against his tan legs, he pivots and kicks his feet together against an imaginary window.

“As far as I can tell, as far as I remember, it came out in one piece,” he says. “It didn’t shatter or anything.”

It’s this part of Rogers’ story that has kept Kansas Highway Patrol trooper Marc McCune awake at night.

McCune was finishing an accident report farther south last August 30 when he got the call about water on the turnpike. In his seven years cruising that stretch of I-35, there had never been problems with high water at that spot. He presumed the water was a puddle at worst.

Even so, he sped north until he hit the traffic that was backed up to a standstill across both northbound lanes and the shoulders. He doubled back and found an emergency turnaround through the median. He drove north again in the empty southbound lanes.

As he approached mile marker 116, McCune flipped on his cruiser’s video camera. On the video, which he showed the Pitch, two silhouettes move slowly across the gleaming headlights of the stationary southbound cars. McCune believes the second silhouette is the Rogerses’ van. Its lights bob once, twice, and then disappear into the darkness.

“As I was pulling up, I saw the Rogerses’ van get swept off the road,” McCune says. “I could hear Mrs. Rogers and the children screaming.”

What he heard, and what Rogers has said since that night, don’t mesh.

“She was screaming the most horrible scream, and so were the kids,” McCune said. “But yet, they have this logical discussion about what kind of shoes are best.”

Told of the trooper’s misgivings, Rogers tries to clarify what was said in the van.

“I wouldn’t call it a discussion,” he explains. “It was more like, ‘Let’s do it. Let’s do it. Gotta kick out the window. I got my shoes on. Let me do it.'”

McCune, the first to respond, filed the Highway Patrol’s report. While Rogers has been traveling, smiling and speaking, McCune has been losing sleep, crying and filling a 5-inch-thick binder with material about that night.

Along with pictures of mangled cars, diagrams of where bodies were recovered, autopsy reports and Rogers’ two written statements is an internal memo from one of McCune’s supervisors.

It asks the questions never asked by Diane Sawyer or the rest of the reporters who scrambled to tell and retell Rogers’ story. It raises doubts about how hard Rogers tried to save his family.

“At what point did he (rogers) get out of the vehicle? Did he crawl out or get thrown out? Did he break out the window? And at what point? Why did he not get more banged up and or dirty? (pretty much scratch and dirt free) Where did he end up and how did he get back? (Especially since everyone else drowned.)”

Rogers has said that he was sucked out of the van immediately after he broke the window and that he figured Makenah and Melissa were right behind him. “What I suspect happened is the pressure of the weight against the van — it was like puncturing a balloon. It flushed everything that wasn’t tied down,” he says.

But submerged vehicles don’t act like balloons, says Larry Weber of the University of Iowa Institute of Hydraulic Research.

Weber says that when Rogers broke the window, water outside the van would have poured in, taking the place of the remaining air. To get out of the van, Rogers would have had to battle that inward flow.

Weber concedes that if Rogers kicked his feet far enough through the window and into the flow of water, the van’s speed — it would not have been moving as rapidly as the water around it — might have allowed Rogers to escape in the way he has described.

“Without question, there was a drag force on his legs that could have pulled him out of the car,” Weber says. “I can’t say if those forces were enough to suck him out immediately.”

For Weber, there are three main variables: How much faster was the water moving than the van? How far did Rogers kick? And how much water was already in the van?

There is no way to re-create the situation.

Rogers has one thing right, though. “Unless you were there, it was impossible to explain what it was like,” he says.

But Rogers hasn’t really tried.

McCune first asked for a statement from Rogers three days after the flood, as Rogers was preparing to return to Liberty. But instead of a detailed description of the events, Rogers instead handed the trooper a strange, handwritten note.

It was the press release he’d read to reporters in Emporia.

In the statement, Rogers thanks his rescuers, Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius and his pastor, then gives a vague summary of what happened.

McCune had asked for a recollection of events; what he got instead was a platitude-filled sermon: “If there’s anything positive that can come from this terrible tragedy, it is to treasure the importance of families … to save every single precious minute with your spouses and children. Hug and kiss them every day — every morning and every evening. Tell them over and over how much you love them. Snuggle with them at bedtime. Place your hand on their heads and bless them every day.”

Rogers concluded the statement with an odd plug — “As a musician, music has been a key ingredient in our family’s joy. Ironically, songs that I’ve composed for our children and from difficult times in our lives, have now come back to strengthen me and give me hope through this tragedy.”

Rogers asked McCune to distribute it to the media. McCune did not.

McCune wrote Rogers a couple of months later to request a more thorough statement. After saying that he’d lost McCune’s first letter, Rogers finally returned a more lengthy statement six weeks later.

If his first statement is odd for its lack of specifics, the second is even stranger for its novelistic detail: “Now, it had swelled to a raging river — a river that eventually stretched nearly 1,002 feet wide on the highway with a forceful, damaging section 318 feet wide (wider than the length of a football field) and five to six feet deep over the highway — all from an unprecedented flood that evidently comes only once every 500 years.”

Most important, however, Rogers repeats in this second statement his claim that after the center divider gave way and the van was sucked away by the torrent of rainwater, he and his wife discussed shoes, then switched seats so he could kick out a window.

A year later, McCune says he is no closer to knowing what really happened that night. He’s pretty sure he never will.

“Unfortunately the only people that can answer a lot of questions you have and I have are dead or are Robert Rogers,” McCune says.
Rogers says the water’s current thrashed him like a rag doll. He couldn’t see. He couldn’t breathe. He was drowning.

“Yet in the water something truly miraculous happened,” he tells the Pitch. “In the water, God touched me and became part of a peace I can’t understand.”

Something — maybe an angel, he says — pulled him to solid ground about half a mile from the road. To get back to the highway, he had to get over a 4-foot-high barbed-wire fence.

He found McCune and remembers telling him, “My wife and four children are down there.” Rogers has told at least one reporter that he was crying as he said it.

But McCune doesn’t remember any tears. He doesn’t remember any reaction at all. He doesn’t remember that Rogers was even breathing heavily. He remembers Rogers approaching him. He was wet but clean, the trooper says. There was no grass or mud on his clothes. He wasn’t bleeding.

“When he came to me on the highway, he was very calm. He was very soft-spoken. He wasn’t crying. He wasn’t hysterical. He wasn’t emotional,” McCune says. “I wasn’t sure to believe him, he was so calm.”

McCune figured the man had simply become separated from a family of onlookers. “I said, ‘Where are they?’ He said, ‘They’re out there. I was in the van, and the kids are strapped in, and I got out.'”

“I couldn’t believe it,” McCune says. “Here he is with no cuts, no bones sticking out. No lacerations, anything.”

McCune flips to a picture in his binder. It’s a photo of the silver minivan taken after the children’s bodies were removed and the mangled vehicle was turned right side up. It looks like it was thrown into a giant garbage disposal. The doors are both open and crumpled. The windshield glass hangs like a tarp across the hood.

“You look at that, and how do you get out of that?” McCune says.

With the rain still falling in sheets and Jacob Creek still raging, search-and-rescue teams from several agencies arrived.

The rescuers noticed Robert Rogers.

They’d seen survivors before. They’d been around fathers when their sons were missing beneath a lake surface. They’d combed woods looking for missing daughters. They’d watched parents make calls looking for runaways.

Some despairing parents are in-your-face intense, demanding why you don’t do more. Others are rah-rah supportive, offering to go find equipment, money, anything.

But they all are at least interested.

“This guy was just as cold and cool as a cucumber,” says Mike Cahoone, who was part of the search-and-rescue team and spent three days at the creek. He would be the one to spot Melissa’s body floating in the pond.

Cahoone says he thought Rogers was a reporter at first. “He was not dirty. He was not scratched, and he didn’t seem shaken.

“I would have been in the water,” Cahoone says. “I would have been everywhere.”

Rogers has been everywhere since. He’s spoken at churches across the country. In January, Rogers appeared on a Montel Williams Show titled “Their Stories Touched Us All.”

None of the rescue workers, however, were asked to appear with him.

At Providence Baptist, after telling his story of the flood, sniffles are heard from the congregation.

Rogers then shows the last picture ever taken of his entire family. They are smiling and clustered in front of the white lattice and candles of the Wichita wedding reception. The photo came from film recovered from the mangled and waterlogged minivan.

Then he shows a picture Makenah drew of herself for a color-your-own calendar. Above the grid of September 2003, six balloons carry a stick-figured Makenah away from a yellow school bus that has stopped at a red light.

“Six people died that night,” Rogers says. “She’s holding six balloons.”

Then another picture, one of the last taken of the children. In it, Makenah holds a balloon in each hand stretched high above her head. A stoplight glows above her head.

“That’s not a coincidence,” Rogers says. “That’s a God-incidence.”

Rogers returns to the piano. As he leads the congregation in singing “It Is Well With My Soul,” Billy Graham’s camera crew slinks out, lugging their equipment with them.

The screen flashes an advertisement for Rogers’ Web site.

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