Fire chief nearly drowns trying to rescue stranded driver during NC flooding

PRINCVEILLE, N.C. (WNCN) — One of the many amazing stories to emerge from the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew is the near-death of Princeville Volunteer Fire Department Chief James Powell.

For Powell, a water rescue at the height of the storm Saturday was a close call that almost turned into his last call.

“Crews arrived and saw a vehicle in water with water three-quarters of the way up the vehicle,” said Chief Powell.

Chopper 10 video shows devastating flooding in Tarboro, North Carolina

The chief approached the vehicle with a rope tied around his waist.

“Before I knew it, the vehicle was moving,” he recalled. “My firefighters say I disappeared under water and the vehicle disappeared under water.”

“After he went under I went into emergency mode and told the driver to back up as fast as you can,” said Capt. Kermit Perkins of the fire department.

Back at the station, the chief’s wife was hearing all this in the radio.Bonnie Powell said her heart was “in my feet. It was heart-wrenching.”

A couple of the firefighters and a five-ton truck saved the chief’s life.

“When the chief came ashore we rolled him over,” Perkins said. “He was breathing. It was a sigh of relief.”

Firefighters from Rocky Mount and Tarboro were able to rescue the woman stranded in the car the chief was trying to get to.

James Powell said he doesn’t remember much of what happened, but his firefighters do, and they’ll be talking about it for many days to come.