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Family's survival in reservoir break a 'miracle,' says father

A wall of water roared into house

ST. LOUIS -- Jerry Toops heard his wife scream his name in the dark. He awoke to hear a roar he could only describe as a group of F-14 jets if combined with a fleet of trains.

When a reservoir at AmerenUE's Taum Sauk hydroelectric plant broke in southeast Missouri on Dec. 14, the five members of the Toops family were caught up in about a billion gallons of water that swept away their home. Somehow, they survived.

Toops, 42, wanted to rescue his children, but a wall of water hit him ''like a head-on collision" in his bedroom. He swam to his roof, but couldn't find them.

''I knelt down and prayed. I prayed they would be all right," he said Friday at a news conference at the hospital where his 5-year-old son, Tanner, is recovering. The other children, 3-year-old Tara and 7-month old Tucker, were released last Sunday.

The reservoir break happened in sparsely populated Reynolds County. The Toops's home in Johnson's Shut-Ins State Park, where Jerry Toops was superintendent, was the only house destroyed.

Lisa Toops, 38, had fallen asleep while feeding their youngest child on a couch around 4 a.m. She awoke when she heard the roar. ''I yelled, 'Jerry, get the kids.' "

She grabbed the baby and rushed to Tanner's bedroom. They made it as far as the end of the bed before the frigid water arrived.

''It took all of 10 seconds to completely fill the room," Lisa Toops said. She told Tanner to hold his breath and to pray, ''Jesus save us," as the water struck.

Outside the house, Tanner was washed away while Lisa Toops kept the baby in her arms. She heard Tanner calling, ''Mommy," located him, and managed to keep both boys near her until rescuers arrived.

Neither parent had time to reach Tara, who made it through the waters on her own, perhaps helped by doggie paddle lessons she'd gotten in a backyard wading pool.

Meanwhile, Jerry Toops was swept off the roof and fighting the waters by grabbing on to anything he could find. Trees and pieces of roof crumbled in his hands as he tried to grab hold. Finally, he made his way to a tree, and waited until rescuers arrived.

Suffering from hypothermia, he was given a coat and was receiving treatment in an ambulance as he saw something nearly unbelievable -- rescuers returning with the rest of his family.

''You know, I believe in miracles, and I believe this was one," he said, his voice breaking.

The children were suffering from hypothermia when they arrived at the hospital. Tanner was upgraded earlier this week to fair condition, after being near cardiac arrest at one point. He also needed skin grafts on his legs, after he was burned during the rewarming process after his rescue.

AmerenUE officials have said it appeared that the plant's automated instruments pumped too much water into the reservoir and caused it to rupture. A backup set of instruments should have recognized the problem but did not, the company has said.

State regulators said the section of the wall that collapsed appeared to consist entirely of soil and rock, instead of granite.

Since the reservoir failure, the town of Lesterville put on a fundraising dinner for the family, bringing in $4,400. Volunteers cleaned the parsonage at the Toops's church, and filled it with donated furniture and other items so it could serve as a temporary home.

The Toops family was planning to move soon because Jerry Toops was promoted to another park. The parents said they'd like some time to return to the area before they do that, so their children can see friends and return to their preschool.

Jerry Toops believes that if any family was strong enough to survive the experience, it was his.

''We were the right people in the wrong place," he said.

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