The last time Kevin Johnson saw his son Scott, he was pushing through chest-deep floodwater to try to get his grandmother out of her mobile home.
At 74, Willa Mae Pennington had chronic lung problems and weighed only about 90 pounds. She couldn’t get out on her own.
Johnson followed his son until the roiling current pushed him off his feet and against the back of a nearby mobile home on Big Mudlick Creek, swelled far out of its banks by torrential rain.
“I hollered and said, ‘Scott, you can’t make it!’” Johnson recalled. “He said, ‘I’m getting Nanaw out of that trailer!’”
Scott Johnson made it inside the mobile home, but seconds later the water lifted it and pushed it downstream.
Johnson, 34, and his grandmother both died in the flood in Johnson County last July.
Now, Johnson is being considered for a medal from the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission because of his efforts to save others.
Steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, then one of the richest industrialists in the nation, started the fund in 1904 after being inspired by the stories of two men who died trying to help others in a Pennsylvania coal-mine blast.
The award recognizes civilians in the U.S. and Canada who risk their lives “to an extraordinary degree while saving or attempting to save the life of another person,” according to the commission.
The fund has since awarded medals to 9,845 people — out of more than 88,000 nominees — and paid out $38 million to recipients or their survivors.
The commission lists 156 recipients from Kentucky since the early 1900s, most recently in 2014.
Jeffrey A. Dooley, investigations manager for the commission, confirmed it is researching Johnson’s actions in the flood and said it could be several months before a decision is made.
Johnson and his grandmother were among four people who died when flash flooding caused devastation along several miles of Big Mudlick Creek, from Flat Gap to Staffordsville, on July 13.
An estimated 3 inches of rain fell in an hour in a concentrated area, according to the National Weather Service.
The creek runs along a narrow valley. When water from the cloudburst poured out of the surrounding hills, the creek couldn’t carry it away fast enough.
“It was basically like a wall of water,” said Tony Edwards, a meteorologist with the weather service office in Jackson.
The water was strong and deep enough to push mobile homes down the creek like toy boats, splintering them against trees or the bank.
The flood destroyed about 60 homes and damaged scores of others, according to Gary McClure, emergency manager for Johnson County, who noted that 550 homeowners told federal officials they’d had some damage from the flood.
In addition to Johnson and Pennington, the flood killed Richard Blair, 22, and Herman Eddie May Sr., 56.
Blair was disabled and could not get out of his mobile home as it washed it away.
May was swept away when he got out of his sport-utility vehicle as the water rose around it, police said.
Kevin Johnson, who cuts timber for a living, lived in a mobile home next to his brother, Joey Johnson. Their mother, Pennington, had her own trailer a few yards from Joey Johnson’s doublewide mobile home. Big Mudlick Creek curved around the property.
Kevin Johnson, 54, said he had lived at the spot since 1977. The creek swelled out of its banks sometimes during heavy rains, but it had never reached his house, Johnson said.
Johnson was home when the downpour started at mid-afternoon July 13.
“Never seen rain like that,” Johnson said.
His wife, Polly, was gone on an errand, but his stepdaughter, Angie Click, and 12-year-old Logan Bowling, who sometimes stayed there, were with him.
All I could do was holler at them and tell them to hold on and pray.
Polly Johnson, who saw Scott’s attempt to save his grandmother
As the water started rising, Kevin Johnson sent Logan to Pennington’s house, thinking they would be safe because it was on a spot about 10 feet higher, then went to move his Ford pickup truck to higher ground.
Scott Johnson arrived about that time. While Joey and Scott Johnson went to move other vehicles, Kevin Johnson, Scott’s father, went back into his house to retrieve some money from the bedroom.
However, the sound of water gushing in the floor vents unnerved him. He left without remembering to get his money or other valuables, such as guns.
The water in the front yard was up to his neck, and he struggled to move through the powerful, muddy current.
“I said, ‘Scott, I’m not going to make it,’” Kevin Johnson said.
Scott Johnson, burly and several inches taller than his father, shoved him to shallower water, then pulled Click to safety as well, Johnson said.
Scott Johnson then headed toward his grandmother’s home.
Family and friends said the two had a special bond. Pennington had a large part in raising Johnson after his parents divorced when he was 3, said his mother, Trena Cantrell.
“She was Scott’s security,” Cantrell said.
Lisa Kirk, manager at the Zip Zone Express convenience store where Johnson worked, said it didn’t take much time around him to learn of his love for Pennington.
“His grandma was his favorite person,” Kirk said.
Johnson lived with Pennington and cooked and shopped for her, family members said.
The day of the flood, Johnson’s father and uncle followed as he headed for Pennington’s house.
When they were about 20 yards from the porch, the water level suddenly rose to his chin and pushed him and his brother against the back of Joey Johnson’s trailer, Kevin Johnson said.
“That water had so much power,” Johnson said.
He and his brother hung on and watched as Scott Johnson kept going, Kevin Johnson said.
He made it to his grandmother Pennington’s trailer but had taken only a couple of steps inside before the flood popped it up like a cork and carried it away.
Kevin Johnson said he and his brother managed to get inside his brother’s home, but then the flood washed it off the foundation, spun it and pushed it on top of several vehicles in the yard. Sparks flew as electric lines snapped.
Kevin Johnson took off his boots so he could swim after his son and mother, but his brother grabbed his arm and wouldn’t let him, Johnson said. He couldn’t see what was happening with his son and mother after that.
But his wife, Polly Johnson, who had returned by then and was on higher ground on the hill across Ky. 172, saw Scott Johnson through the door of the floating trailer.
Scott was holding Pennington around the waist, and she was clinging to him, Polly Johnson said.
Scott Johnson jumped out of the trailer into the muddy water and Logan followed.
There was a skinny catalpa tree nearby that Kevin Johnson had planted a few years before. Scott Johnson grabbed it and held on with his grandmother on his shoulder, Polly Johnson said. Logan also held onto the tree.
When a piece of a wooden porch floated by, Logan scrambled onto it, and then he and Scott Johnson got Pennington up on it, but Johnson stayed in the water, Polly Johnson said.
“All I could do was holler at them and tell them to hold on and pray,” she said.
Logan told her later that as they clung to the porch, Scott Johnson asked Pennington to pray for the safety of his father and uncle; he didn’t know they had gotten out of the water, Polly Johnson said.
Logan told her he and Scott Johnson held to some sort of cable in the water for a short time, but had to let go because the current was so strong it was tearing their hands to hang on.
Then the water pushed Kevin and Polly Johnson’s trailer downstream, blocking her view of the three clinging to the porch.
Logan said later he got separated and started swimming, then clambered onto a pile of debris in the creek and into the top of a tree, where he rode out the flood until he was rescued, Polly Johnson said.
Trena Cantrell said a police officer told her he saw Scott Johnson a mile or more down the creek holding onto a cooler.
That was the last time anyone saw him, she said.
Police, firefighters, volunteers and family members rushed to search for missing people amid the muck and debris of smashed houses.
“It was like, no, this can’t be happening. It was a total nightmare,” Cantrell said.
Searchers found Pennington’s body the day after the flood. The county coroner said an autopsy found no water in Pennington’s lungs, meaning she apparently died of a heart attack during the fright of the flood, family members said.
Searchers found Scott Johnson’s body four days after the flood, hidden under the debris of a smashed mobile home. He had drowned.
The spot was within sight of where his grandmother was buried in a hillside cemetery, Cantrell said.
Scott Johnson was single and had no children, but he loved kids, family and friends said.
At the store where he worked, he opted out of the Christmas gift exchange with co-workers so he’d have more money to spend on nieces, nephews and the children of friends, Kirk said.
Kirk said Johnson was good with customers. It was a minimum-wage job, but he worked hard and wanted things done correctly, she said. He hand-lettered a sign to put in the walk-in cooler on how to stock the soft drinks. Kirk left it up after he died.
Johnson was an artist and was passionate about music. He was a rapper and wrote songs drawn from his life, including one about his father becoming a Christian and one about dreading his grandmother’s death.
“When I was out of my head she left her porch light on,” he said in the song. “She taught me use your head but always trust your heart.”
Johnson, who did his first concert at a local flea market, hoped to make it big someday, Cantrell said.
“Scott loved his music,” she said.
Johnson performed under the name Scott Free with a friend, Michael “PoohSniper” Razor, who produced their songs.
Razor said Johnson wanted to show people it was possible to do what you wanted no matter where you were from. He said it didn’t surprise him that Johnson gave his life trying to help someone.
“It could’ve been anybody in that trailer and he would’ve tried to get’m out,” said Razor. “He was a good-hearted person.”
These days, the rebuilding effort continues along the creek.
Many people have new homes, and there are pallets of building materials stacked where the Ramey Branch Gospel Church once stood, ready as the congregation prepares to rebuild.
Crews are still working to repair damage to Ky. 172, however, and not all the debris is gone.
Family members still cry when they talk about Johnson. His mother so far can’t bring herself to get rid of his gold Chevrolet Cavalier with the Scott Free Recordings sticker, even though the car doesn’t run.
Her house was not damaged in the flood, but she remodeled afterward anyway.
“If I stay busy, I don’t have time to think,” she said.
When he talks about the flood, Kevin Johnson can’t help second-guessing how things might have been different if he had gone to his mother’s house more quickly.
He couldn’t have made it through losing his mother and son without his faith, said Johnson, who ministers to inmates at the county jail.
“If you try to go through something like this without the Lord, the devil will destroy you,” Johnson said.
Family and friends hope the Carnegie Fund will recognize Scott Johnson, but they’re convinced of his heroism whatever the decision.
“Whether he wins a medal or not, he will always be remembered,” Cantrell said. “He’s our hero.”