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'Could have been there in minutes': County highway workers lived near bridge where 6 were swept away

Attorney says highway dept. workers not notified
Posted at 5:00 PM, May 20, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-21 09:58:06-04

Laurel — New information reveals help was likely just minutes away when six people got swept away on a flooded Franklin County bridge and died.

This happened on the Sanes Creek bridge in Laurel Indiana on March 20, 2020.

Following our initial investigation, WRTV Investigates received numerous messages and tips including one that said a highway department supervisor lived near the Sanes Creek bridge.

WRTV Investigates did some checking and learned that both a highway department foreman and a highway department employee both lived within three miles — or a five-minute drive — from the bridge, but they were never notified of the situation prior to several vehicles going into the creek.

Some say this new information is further proof the deaths of six people, including three children, could have been prevented.

KyLee, age 4, and Elysium, age 7, Ethan, age 13, and their mother Felina Lewis drowned when their van got swept away by floodwaters on Sanes Creek bridge.

Burton Spurlock and Shawn Roberts also went off the same bridge and died that morning.

After six people were swept away, Franklin County Highway employee Donnie Grizzell also went into the creek just after 6 am.

Operator: “911 what is your emergency?”

Grizzell: “I ran my jeep into the creek on Sanes Creek Road. this bridge is totally out. Do I need to stay with my vehicle?”

Operator: “Preferably stay with your vehicle.”

Grizzell survived, and at approximately 7:45 am, Grizzell’s supervisor Kent Ruf called the Franklin County Sheriff’s Department to tell them a deputy had still not responded to the bridge.

Ruf: "This is Kent, Franklin County Highway. One of my drivers is down in Salt Creek, uh, Sanes Creek bridge. And one of the dispatchers told him to wait until one of the deputies arrived. I need my man."

Sheriff’s Dept: "Is an officer there?"

Ruf: “No, no, we’ve been here for two hours waiting.”

Grizzell and Ruf weren’t the only ones to call for help.

As WRTV Investigates reported last month, three people called Franklin County 911 and the sheriff’s department hours before six people were swept away by floodwaters and died.

PREVIOUS | “This wasn’t an accident” Several 911 calls made about flooded creek

The first call came in at approximately 3:17 am from a woman who lives near the bridge.

Operator: "911 what's your emergency?"

Caller: "Uh, Sanes Creek Road is flooded."

Operator: "OK, is there an emergency? Is someone stuck?"

Caller: "No, we was just going down the hill and we turned around but yeah it's flooded bad."

Another caller contacted 911 an hour later, at around 4:18 am.

Caller: "The bridge here on Sanes Creek at the bottom of Sanes Creek hill is completely washed out. It's gone on one side. Somebody better get down here and block it off before someone goes into the river."

A third person called the Franklin County Sheriff’s Department at 4:46 am after her son had trouble getting to work.

Caller: "The water is so deep. He drives a red GMC truck. He said the water is so deep, it went halfway up his headlights and it is moving very fast and almost took him down the creek."

At 4:54 am, Franklin County received another 911 call from a neighbor who stated she saw a vehicle swept off the bridge into Sanes Creek and that she could hear a woman screaming.

Despite at least three warning calls, court documents allege Franklin County did not dispatch a sheriff’s deputy, fire truck, or county highway crew to block off the road.

WRTV Investigates has learned new information on just how close help may have been.

Highway Department worker Donnie Grizzell lives on Sanes Creek Road.

WRTV Investigates drove from his house to the Sanes Creek bridge and measured the time and distance—it took four minutes to drive the 2.3 miles.

Kent Ruf, a foreman, and supervisor for the county highway department, also lives nearby.

WRTV Investigates measured from Ruf’s house to the Sanes Creek bridge and found it’s a 3.6-mile drive that took five minutes to drive.

“It sounds to me like a complete miscommunication,” said Carmel attorney Tim Devereux. “The information about the bridge being out was in the possession of the 911 department and it wasn’t passed along to anyone.”

Attorney Tim Devereux of Carmel law firm Wagner Reese said dispatchers never contacted highway workers Kent Ruf and Donnie Grizzell that morning.

Devereux represents Josh Mosier, the ex-boyfriend of Felina Lewis and father of KyLee and Elysium.

"It's extremely hard, but I'm not running,” said Mosier. “I'm trying to stand on my own two feet."

Mosier filed a wrongful death lawsuit in January against Franklin County alleging the county was negligent when it failed to warn the traveling public and the Franklin County Highway Department about the bridge.

WRTV Investigates shared our findings with Devereux about two county employees whose homes are in close proximity to the bridge.

“That’s key,” said Devereux.

He said dispatchers could have alerted those county highway workers including the supervisor, but did not.

“He could have been to the bridge in minutes to at least setup blinkers on his car to block the road, to do something to warn the traveling public that the bridge was out,” said Devereux. “As a supervisor, he could have easily called in additional county resources to get cones, signs, flares, anything to warn the public this bridge was out."

WRTV Investigates contacted Ruf and Grizzell, but they did not respond.

WRTV also reached out to the Franklin County Highway Department via email and stopped by their office, but no one would talk to us because of the pending litigation.

Josh Mosier wishes dispatchers had notified county highway workers who live within minutes of the bridge.

Mosier wonders if his daughters, and the four others, would still be alive if they had been alerted.

Mosier hopes to prompt a change in protocol and procedures at Franklin County 911.

“When someone calls you needing help, that's exactly what it is,” said Mosier. “It's a 911 emergency phone call. You might want to handle it with a little more responsibility."

The families of Felina Lewis and Ethan Williams have filed their own lawsuits against Franklin County and those are still pending.

We've reached out to their attorneys and have offered to tell their stories as well.

WRTV Investigates asked the county whether they’ve changed anything following the tragedy, and we are still waiting to hear back.

They’ve claimed they’re immune from liability in this case.

The case is scheduled for a hearing on June 10.

We received the following statement from the Franklin County Commissioners earlier this year:

“Last year on March 19 and 20, Franklin County was hit by severe thunderstorms that included hail, high winds, and a significant amount of rain. The storms caused local streams, creeks, and rivers to overflow, including Sanes Creek. The water level in Sanes Creek quickly rose and the rushing water created a large drift pile in the creek. That drift pile forced water behind one of the supports for the bridge. While the bridge was not damaged, the water washed away the road approaching the bridge. Unfortunately, two vehicles were also washed away by the rushing water and six lives were lost.

All bridges in Franklin County are inspected at least every two years. In addition to the regular inspections, the County (via its consultant) conducted a special inspection of the Sanes Creek Bridge after the tragic events of March 20. The inspection found the bridge was structurally sound. The approach to the bridge was rebuilt and the bridge was safely re-opened for travel. Severe weather is unavoidable, and the power of rushing water is devastating. Franklin County Emergency Management and first responders work to make sure Franklin County is ready to respond to emergency situations, including weather-related disasters.”

Mosier’s complaint alleges the county converted the 911 calls about the bridge to “I-calls” or information only, meaning they did not have to send an officer to the scene.

“That means that call does not have to be cleared by a deputy,” said Devereux.

Mosier’s attorneys obtained the 911 calls through a public records request and provided them to WRTV Investigates.

They also obtained a 5:13 pm call from March 20 in which Franklin County Chief Deputy Greg Mehlbauer called into dispatch to have one of his employees review the call log.

During that call, Chief Deputy Greg Mehlbauer learned of the 4:18 am washed-out bridge/roadway.

The following is an excerpt from the call between the dispatcher and Chief Deputy Mehlbauer after he learned of the 4:18 a.m. call:

Chief Mehlbauer: “Can you check and see if somebody called in and said the bridge was out on Sanes Creek around 3 am?”

Dispatcher: “Around 3? Someone saying they did?”

Chief Mehlbauer: “Yeah, there’s a rumor going around out here.”

Dispatcher: “Well of course.”

Chief Mehlbauer: “God help whoever didn’t pass that on if it’s there.”

Dispatcher: “Wait, there was a call at 4:18. It says advise that the bridge on Sanes Creek is completely washed away.”

Chief Mehlbauer: “What did they do with it?

Dispatcher: “It looks like it was made an I-Call.”

Chief Mehlbauer: “Are you f*cking kidding me? Nobody called County Highway?”

The lawsuit also alleges the 911 dispatchers were posting to social media around the same time the calls about the bridge came in, an allegation the county denies.

Mosier’s attorney obtained video from inside the 911 call center.

“When we watched the video, we saw these people were on their phones,” said Devereux. “They were on their cellphones during this time frame."

According to the county’s attorney, one of the dispatchers named in the lawsuit was terminated on March 27, 2020, after a county internal investigation found he gave untruthful statements about a dispatch call the county received on March 20, 2020, the same day Felina Lewis and five others died in the creek.

Another employee listed in the lawsuit is still working for Franklin County and was still in training on the day of the March 20 flood, the county’s attorney said.

On February 2, 2021, Franklin County filed a response to the lawsuit in which it denied it was negligent and denied it failed to warn the traveling public about the washed-out bridge.

The county also said in its response that it received a 911 call at 4:46 am about poles in the road and denied it received a call at that time about Sanes Creek Road flooding.

In its response, Franklin County claims it is immune from liability in this case under the Indiana Tort Claims Act.

Mosier and his attorney disagree, saying immunity doesn’t apply because the county’s response was “willful or wanton misconduct.”

"It is a conscious disregard for the safety of others,” said Devereux. “They knew that no officer would be sent out, there would be no sheriff’s car at the bridge to block it with the lights on. They didn’t send a fire truck. There were options they could have done and didn’t.”

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