"We became orphans overnight"; Nelson County brothers recall surviving Hurricane Camille as family perished

Published: Aug. 12, 2019 at 4:04 PM EDT
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The Tye River flows at a shallow trickle through Massies Mill, a tiny village near the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

"We used to hang out here all the time," said Warren Raines, standing next to the Tye on a late July afternoon.

Raines said the river brought he and his brother, Carl, a great amount of joy in their youth. They loved swimming and fishing in the peaceful stream, which ran behind their family home.

"It was such a good part of our life," Carl Raines said with a pause. "We never realized that it could be dangerous."

The Raines' view of the Tye changed forever in 1969.

"We went from our childhood to our adulthood, pretty much in one night," Warren Raines said.

That night was August 20, 1969. A phone call woke them up around 2 a.m.

"In our mother and father's bedroom, they had a phone by the bed," Warren Raines explained. "We were all upstairs, the family. We run to the bedroom to see who's calling at 2:00 in the morning."

A neighbor was alerting the Raines' to the fact that their small community was filling up with water. Heavy rain had been falling for hours and the Tye River was out of its banks.

"We looked out the window and we could see people were leaving Massies Mill," Warren Raines recalled. "We could see that the water around our home was maybe 6 or 8 inches deep."

The family decided to leave, piling into their 1968 Ford Ranch station wagon.

"We backed out of the driveway and just passed the house when the motor flooded out," Carl Raines said.

By that time Route 56, which ran in front of their house, was under about a foot of water.

"The water went up real quick," Carl Raines said. "It was like a tidal wave."

Stuck outside at that point, they tried to follow the highway and walk to safety.

"We thought we had enough time to perhaps get to a higher spot than what we were in," said Warren Raines.

"My father was carrying our nine-year-old brother, my mother started carrying my little seven-year-old sister, and our 18-year-old sister hung on to our mother," described Carl Ranes. "At that point, the water was so deep and had gotten so swift that we basically got separated."

Warren was hanging onto a nearby limb, but losing grip.

"My mother said 'let go, we'll catch you.'" Raines said. "When I got there, they were gone. They washed away. That was the last contact I had with them."

Warren and Carl survived by climbing into trees.

"The water was probably 10 feet deep below me and it was raining so hard that you had to put your hands over your nose and your mouth to breathe," Carl Raines said.

"There was cattle floating by, logs, automobiles. Even had an entire house float by," said Warren Raines.

Warren and Carl stayed in their trees, cold and drenched with rain, until daybreak.

"When daylight came somebody hollered to me 'Warren, do you know who I am?' I said 'no, I don't know who you are.' He said 'I'm Carl, your brother!'" recalled Warren, who said he didn't recognize his brother because he was in shock.

A short time later, he says three men floated through this area in a boat and rescued them, taking them to a nearby house for shelter and rest.

"We laid down and rested for just a few minutes, but then was said 'no, we've got to get up. We've got to find the rest of the family." said Warren Raines.

That didn't happen. Their father, Carl Sr., mother Shirley, and siblings Johanna, Ginger, and Sandy all washed away. Their bodies were found days later.

It took nearly two weeks to find their youngest sister, Ginger. She had floated almost 20 miles away.

"If she had floated another two miles, she would have ended up in the James River and we never would have found her," Warren Raines said.

Some who drowned in Nelson County that night were never found, but the Raines were all located. Carl and Warren, just 14 and 16 at the time, buried their parents, brother, and sister in the cemetery of their family church.

"We became orphans overnight," said Warren Raines

The brother's story beyond that night is complicated and filled with changes. They went to live with friends of their family. Warren even spent time at a military school.

Throughout it all they had each other, bonded by their memory of a horrific night.

"You think about it, but you keep going," Warren Raines said.

While Carl has moved to Lynchburg, Warren has stayed near the Tye his whole life; a river that runs shallow in Massies Mill but carries deep memories for everyone who lived through Camille's wrath.

This story is part of a series called "Remembering Camille: 50 Years After the Flood." WDBJ7 will be airing special reports commemorating the storm each day at 5 p.m. during the week of August 12-16.
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