Harvey heroes: Man reunites with dozens he rescued, recalls near-death experience

He saved 28 strangers stranded by Hurricane Harvey without hesitation. However, the hero named Charlie cringed when he saw how close his boat came to tragedy.

CYPRESS, Texas – He saved 28 strangers stranded by Hurricane Harvey without hesitation. However, the hero named Charlie cringed when he saw how close his boat came to tragedy.

Hurricane Harvey’s rain smothered roads, bayous and stifled Houstonians.

“I was panicking,” said Philip Tam, who needed rescue from his home.

Tam, 69, a retired data manager for Houston Police and his wife, Alice, rolled out their bed into nearly two-feet of water and worry.

“No way I could get out of here,” Tam said. “This was just an ocean of water.”

His cul-de-sac, home to dozen families, waited hour after hour for rescue. 9-1-1 dispatchers kept transferring calls, Tam said. The many private kayaks and motor boats seen saving people on TV missed Lakewood Place. Even the guy neighbors called blew a tire.

However, Charlie Diggs, with friends Corey and Morgan, pressed on. They tugged Diggs’ pontoon boat down Jones Road.


THE WATER CAME FROM THE BACK

Philip and Alice Tam waited and waded through their home on hold on 911.

“The water came from the back,” Tam said.

While Philip worried, his wife kept an eye out their front window hoping to see a rescue boat.


‘YOU COULDN’T LEAVE ‘EM’

Diggs’ crew had hundreds of Facebook messages, digital maydays from couples with kids and pets trapped nearby.

“This one is from Lakewood Crossing,” Diggs said to his crew that day.  “We got another one (to rescue).”

“Thank you,” a woman getting in the boat told him.

The crew had eight people and two dogs on boat built for 12. Then, as Diggs turned onto Lakewood Place, their real work began.

“I remember air horns going off,” Diggs said. “Whistles being blown, people crying and screaming please come help us. We turned the corner, and this street hadn’t been touched yet.”

They reached capacity quickly. Still, Diggs' crew took on more and more.

“I was trying to tell them we’ll come back for them, but when you see that look in their eyes, you couldn’t leave ‘em,” Diggs said. “The look in their eyes they didn’t believe we’d be back. They were scared for their lives -- you could tell.”


‘THE BOAT IS COMING’

“I was holding the phone then my wife said the boat is coming,” Tam said.  

Tam boarded last. Fear froze him in all that water.

“(Someone in the boat) jumped down and picked me up into the boat,” Tam said. “My wife was stronger. She just walked up to the boat.”


‘IT WAS DUMB… BUT WE WOULD DO IT AGAIN…”

Twenty-eight people, 12 dogs and cats coasted away toward dry land, or so they thought. They took on water twice and stalled near power lines on a guardrail. Diggs' buddy, Corey, hopped out and pushed them away by standing on top of the guardrail.

Two months later, we brought Diggs back to Lakewood Place for the first time since the storm.

“I’m Gloria,” one neighbor told him. “I will give you a hug.”

It seemed all in his boat and those with loved ones saved on Diggs' boat bonded a bit with him. Most are still amazed at the risk Diggs’ never fully understood until now.

Diggs knew the current in the flood water was strong the day of his rescue mission. However, he had no idea that his boat stalled on a bridge at least 20-feet above a gully. 

“It was dumb,” Diggs said. “It was dumb.  All of it was dumb.”

“Bless him because he saved so many people’s lives,” Tam said.

Tam is happy to be back inside his house.  There is not much left inside besides gratitude for those who risked everything to save strangers.

© 2017 KHOU-TV


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