HomeInspireLife

How a sister saved her disabled brothers in a hurricane

BY Corina Knoll

27th Mar 2023 Life

How a sister saved her disabled brothers in a hurricane

Trapped by a hurricane and rising waters, devoted sister Darcy Bishop struggles against the elements and the odds to save her disabled brothers

When the water slipped in under the door of their home in Naples, Florida, it was just a glimmer on the floor, a sign that it was time to go.

It was around noon on Wednesday, September 28 last year and Darcy Bishop roused her two brothers who had been resting after lunch. She pulled the wheelchair up to the oldest, Russell Rochow, 66, and heaved him into it before slipping his feet into black Velcro shoes.

Her other brother, Todd Rochow, 63, was in his room, changing out of pyjamas. He could manage with a walker.

Both men had been born with cerebral palsy, and their mental development was like that of a young child. About ten years ago, they started showing signs of Parkinson’s disease. But they found joy in their surroundings. Russell loved riding the bus and going to parks. Todd liked collecting cans at the beach and waiting for the postman. And both had girlfriends. Bishop, 61, was their lifeline, their little sister who had long felt an obligation to keep them safe.

Trapped in their flooding home

A flood-damaged bedroom in Darcy Bishop's house after Hurricane IanA flood-damaged bedroom in Darcy Bishop's house. Credit: Jason Andrew / The New York Times

“We’ve got to get going!” she shouted to Todd. She went to open the front door. It would not budge. The weight of the water on the other side had cemented it shut.

She rushed to try the door to the garage, where Todd’s walker was stored. It, too, was stuck.

"It went from ankle-deep to knee-deep in less than five minutes. I just knew that there was no way out"

That’s when the house the three siblings shared with their parents began to flood.

“It went from ankle-deep to knee-deep in less than five minutes,” Bishop said. “I just knew that there was no way out.”

As Hurricane Ian bore down on Florida, many residents who decided to stay found themselves unable to leave if they tried. For hours they were forced to fight heavy winds and attempt to escape flooding inside long-loved homes that had become frightening, deadly traps. Within days, around 100 deaths in the state would be attributed to the hurricane, many of them older residents who drowned.

Darcy Bishop and her brothers

A framed picture of Darcy Bishop and her disabled brothers as children A childhood photo of Bishop and her brothers. Credit: Jason Andrew / The New York Times

Bishop had watched over her brothers since she was a child, while her parents ran a leather and fur cleaning service. As an adult, she had always lived near or with Russell and Todd, overseeing their medications and appointments at great cost to her personal life.

“I’ve been married a couple times; nobody wanted to deal with all of the drama, so none of that lasted,” she said. “I just committed my life to them.”

They had not evacuated the area earlier in the week because reports about the hurricane’s path seemed inconsistent and confusing. On Tuesday, Bishop had planned to leave with her brothers for her daughter’s home 25 kilometres inland. But by then, there were so many warnings to stay put. Her parents were already safe in Wisconsin.

Now Bishop and her brothers were trapped. She texted her daughter at 12:34pm. “Water’s coming in.” Around her, she could hear the dining room hutch tipping and crashing, the china breaking, the refrigerator toppling over.

The fight to go up

The ruined front porch of Darcy Bishop's house after the hurricaneOnly days earlier, the spot where Darcy Bishop stands was underwater. Credit: Jason Andrew / The New York Times

The only way to go was up. Bishop’s parents had bought the tan home with the wintergreen metal roof around 1981, settling in the southwestern Florida city that would come to be known for its pristine beaches and wealth. The home, located on a main inlet to the Gulf of Mexico, was not in great condition. Her parents, both in their eighties, had put their savings into their sons, even cashing in their life insurance policies.

But they had, about three decades earlier, added a second level.

Bishop guided Todd to the stairs, and he gripped the banister. She helped him pull himself slowly up to the top where he waited in a chair. Her Pomeranian, Destiny, also headed up.

But stairs were impossible for Russell, who could neither walk nor bend his stiff legs.

“I’m trying to pull him up the stairs, and he’s yelling, ‘I can’t, I can’t,’ and he’s slipping and sliding,” Bishop said.

She had undergone knee replacement surgery in August because of a torn meniscus suffered while pushing Russell in his wheelchair up a hill. The stitches had just been taken out, and she had been warned to keep her scar dry. It was now submerged in brown and brackish water.

Bishop yanked on the belt around Russell’s waist, but he was nearly 77 kilograms. She tried every position possible, switching from pushing to pulling, and managed to get him up a few carpeted steps.

But the water followed.

“Russ, try to get on your butt and put your hands up on the stairs—try to help me,” she pleaded. He didn’t understand.

Bishop called 911 and was told someone would come soon. But out the window she could already see patio furniture, boats and cars floating by.

It would be a while before anyone could get to them. Her daughter, Heather Noel, had gotten her text and was trying to call, but reception was bad.

“I kept thinking that even if rescuers got to her, if they couldn’t get to Russell, too, I knew she wouldn’t leave, because she wouldn’t leave them,” said Noel, 39.

One of Noel’s neighbours offered to pick up her mother and uncles, but a police officer had forced him to turn back because it was unsafe.

"Bishop was frantic. She would pull Russell up one step, only to see the water rise with them. And then her brother would ask to rest"

Meanwhile, Bishop was frantic. She would pull Russell up one step, only to see the water rise with them. And then her brother would ask to rest. “I’m sorry, Darcy. I’m tired.”

At one point, he slipped back down a few steps, and they had to start over. Bishop called Russell’s physical therapist, who managed to coax him to move a bit. But her phone battery was dwindling, and she had to hang up.

Her frustration was tempered by Russell’s innocence. He counted the pictures on the wall. “Look, Darcy: one, two, three, four.”

“That’s very good, Russ,” Bishop said as tears slid down her cheeks.

Saying goodbye

Darcy salvaging possessions from her flood-damaged homeDarcy Bishop looking for anything in her home that could be salavaged. Credit: Jason Andrew / The New York Times

It took them a good hour, but they finally made it up eight steps to the first small landing, then three steps to the second, and then a handful of steps more.

But they stopped where the angle of the final landing required Russell’s body to twist. It simply would not.

Bishop grabbed one of her father’s belts and tried to tie her and Russell together, but it broke. His feet dangled in the water.

“I was just aggravated. I had to walk away,” Bishop said. “And then I came back and said, ‘Okay, Russ, come on,’ and he kept pointing to the pictures on the wall.”

They had climbed as far as they could. And still the water swelled.

Bishop picked up her phone. Five per cent battery left.

She took a breath and walked to her parents’ bedroom on the second floor so her brothers would not hear her. Then she called her mother to say goodbye.

“I’m sorry,” she said, crying, “but I don’t think we’re going to make it. I love you guys. I did all I could. I just wanted to call and tell you.”

Her mother tried to reassure her. Then the phone went dead.

Bishop returned to Russell on the stairs and placed sofa cushions and pillows around him to make him comfortable. She sat down beside him. And waited.

But after a while, she noticed the water start to recede. Hours passed as she stared, watching its slow retreat.

Rescue and escape

Devastation in nearby Fort Myers Beach, FloridaDevastation in nearby Fort Myers Beach, Florida. Credit: Hilary Swift / The New York Times

At around 6:30 p.m., Russell said, “Somebody’s downstairs.”

Bishop called out, “Hello?! Hello?! Who’s there?”

It was her granddaughter’s cousin, Hance Walters. He lived nearby and had heard she was in trouble.

Walters, 28, standing in waist-deep water, instructed two of his friends to go to his house and fetch canoes. Bishop waded to her back porch and snatched inner tubes and rafts to help bring her brothers outside. There, they were hoisted into the canoes.

Russell’s floating wheelchair was tossed in as well, although parts were missing. Bishop grabbed a laundry basket and loaded it with medication, birth certificates, health records. She put her dog in a raft and tied the house door shut with an extension cord before pushing herself away. Outside, the wind kept knocking her over. She saw that water had nearly reached the top of the garage, the cars submerged inside. It seemed to take forever to get to a dry patch of road, to finally be driven to her anxious daughter.

Looking back and forward

Darcy Bishop with her brothers Russell and Todd
Darcy Bishop with her brothers Russell and Todd. Credit: Jason Andrew / The New York Times

\When Bishop tells the story of her escape, she sobs at the part where she could not leave her brothers. She is exhausted and her legs are bruised. She also fractured her hand while helping Russell into the bathroom two days after being rescued and had to be taken to urgent care.

She is not sure about the future they face. The house will need to be demolished. “How am I going to take care of my brothers?” she wonders.

"Todd and Russell are safe. They have not said much about the ordeal they survived, only that they want things to return to normal"

But for now, Bishop and her brothers are welcome to stay at her daughter’s home. Todd and Russell are safe. They have not said much about the ordeal they survived, only that they want things to return to normal. “I don’t want no more hurricane,” they both repeat.

THE NEW YORK TIMES (OCTOBER 2, 2022), COPYRIGHT © 2022 THE NEW YORK TIMES COMPANY

Banner credit: Hilary Swift / The New York Times

Keep up with the top stories from Reader's Digest by subscribing to our weekly newsletter