A story of courage and heroism, published in A Cup of Comfort for Courage (Adams Media).
By Dan Cooper
It was in 1987, during the height of summer camp season in the Texas Hill Country, that John Bankston achieved a more memorable hero status than his considerable sports accomplishments had ever served to create for him. That year John was just another high school football player at summer camp until the rains came to the Hill Country.
There are more camps in this region than anyplace else in the United States west of the Mississippi River. It is the Hill Country’s version of big business. During the height of the 1987 camp season July brought an unexpected late season heavy rain, and with it the severe flooding that is endemic to the hills.
In Texas it has been common practice to neglect the building of expensive bridges over waterways. People are frequently forced to cross rising floodwaters in creeks and even rivers, by using the notorious “low water crossings.” These are laughable but cheap substitutes for real bridges. They are laughable, that is, until the water rises unexpectedly.
In normal low water conditions these crossings usually protrude slightly above the surface of the stream. After even slight rains many of them are under water by a few inches, so vehicles frequently cross at those points through several inches of flowing water.
The Pot Of Gold Camp is isolated from outside traffic by one such low water crossing and on one fateful day in July, 1987, the rains came. They kept coming, and with considerable force. In the hills, streams can rise perceptibly, even dramatically, in a matter of seconds. It was at just such a time that the driver of a busload of Pot Of Gold campers faced the decision to cross or turn back. Yes, the water was rising quickly, but the driver felt he had time to make it. He chose to cross. Big mistake. The light truck that was leading the bus stalled and the bus was then stuck behind it in the rising water.
The vehicles lost contact with the pavement and were slowly swept into the churning, rising turbulence. Panic ensued. Many campers decided it would be best to stay in the bus. Another mistake. The sliding tilting vehicle quickly began to fill with water, and those that had lingered were then faced with deeper, faster, and more violent water than had been the case only moments before.
People scrambled for any refuge they could find. Trees were the most obvious and easiest to reach. But the swelling water swept frantically struggling campers past several trees before they could manage to catch one and climb to apparent safety. The rain kept falling and the water kept rising. Locals familiar with such floods later estimated that the current reached speeds in excess of 60 miles per hour. Literally within minutes, a tree that seemed like a solid and secure stronghold from which to ride out the tempest, became a moving, creaking, bending death trap. Enter our hero.
John Bankston was a high school football star. He was a big boy, and very strong. When the water kept rising and the trees that people were clinging to began looking like traps, John started saving lives. One after another, John retrieved them from their precarious, disappearing perches. He laboriously worked his way out to them, loaded them onto his strong back and slowly carried them to safer refuge. The current was increasingly swift and dangerous, filled with sharp and heavy debris including whole trees that had already been uprooted somewhere upstream. But John was young and strong.
The newspapers said he carried “several” to safety but he was unable to get to them all. Some died in the water that day. Many of those he saved would surely have gone with them. One of those campers he managed to save was in particular danger of drowning. The camper was wearing a full-leg cast on a broken leg. It was a plaster cast. The kind you are not supposed to get wet. The kind that get really heavy when they do get wet. Reports vary but consistently they mention John carrying that one camper on his back for 30 full minutes before getting him to safety—a half hour for just that one camper. There is no telling how long he labored that day in the violent churning water that carried trees past him.
John continued to go out after them long after it would have been prudent to stop doing so. In a lot of ways John was a typical football player. He relied on his strength and his conditioning to keep him going when others would have stopped. He felt invulnerable in his strong youth, and that same feeling of invulnerability that served him so well on the football field, was his undoing on that fateful day. Somewhere out there in the water, on yet another mercy mission to still another anonymous victim of the flood, John disappeared. To this day his remains have never been found.
A pretty good definition of a hero is a person who does what has to be done regardless of the consequences. There are true heroes and there are pretend heroes. John Bankston was the real thing. I never knew John, but I salute him with all my heart. May his memory live on forever in the minds of all those I can tell of the truly inspiring heroics he performed on one rainy day in 1987.
Copyright Dan Cooper, 2000
Originally published in A Cup of Comfort for Courage (2004), Colleen Sell, ed. [Adams Media]