By Dale Denwalt, Staff Writer
Enid News and Eagle
ENID, Okla. —
It’s been 40 years since Carlena Freelove-Otwell struggled to keep her head above water while Boggy Creek raged around her.
She was just 2 years old. Indeed, she was lucky that a group of railroad workers decided to head back to the depot on Oct. 10, 1973, crossing paths with Carlena and her mother as they held on to a utility pole above the flood.
Frisco Railroad worker Tom Baker remembers seeing the two as the crew stopped on the tracks.
“They was hanging on this pole and everything in the world was coming down that creek,” including fence sections, barrels and automobiles, Baker said. “I said that if she turns loose of that kid I’m going to git her. Lo and behold she did; something hit her, I think.”
When he saw Carlena fall into the rushing water, he didn’t think. He jumped.
The girl screamed, “Mommy, mommy,” Baker remembers. Her head bobbed up and down in the water. With help from his fellow railroad workers, he swam to Carlena, grabbed her and took her to the nearby OG&E office. Enid firefighters reportedly rescued her mother, Vickie Otwell, farther downstream near St. Mary’s Hospital.
Baker said the water was so deep his feet brushed against the tops of trees.
It was at the OG&E office that Vic Lippard snapped a photo of the girl whose name went unreported for four decades. Carlena and her family came forward this week after publication of an article in the News & Eagle asking for her identity. She still lives in Enid and is a supervisor at AdvancePierre Foods.
Because she was only a toddler, Carlena confesses she doesn’t remember a lot of that night.
“I remember somebody carrying me to the old OG&E building,” she said. “I remember meeting up with my mom later on that night. She had splinters on the inside of her thighs from being up on a telephone pole.”
Carlena and her mother rarely talked about the flood, and about what happened that night. For some families, such a daring rescue could easily become part of their history.
In this case, though, another incident with eerily similar circumstances has made drowning a taboo subject in her family. Carlena’s son, Santoi Freelove, then at the same age she was during the flood, nearly drowned in her mother’s swimming pool.
“Two-year-olds I guess are kind of wiggly, and they get away really quickly,” she said.
Santoi survived, but now has psychological and physical disabilities.
“They told me he’d pass away before he was 10, and he’s 24 now,” Carlena said.
The two incidents took a toll on Carlena’s mother, who passed away a few years ago.
“She very rarely talked about it. I’m sure it did because I know that my son’s accident bothered her mentally. I can imagine that when his drowning accident happened at the house with her, it probably brought back a lot of memories that she wasn’t too comfortable with,” Carlena said.
There’s been a toll on her, too. Seeing kids near water can send her into a panic.
There’s also been time to reflect on Oct. 10, 1973, and how karma saved her but nearly took her son. And she realizes others weren’t so lucky.
“I know I’m fortunate that somebody heard me and my mom, and took the time and the energy to actually jump in and save me,” Carlena said.