Saturday, March 8, 1997
Townspeople return to mess
Residents grab items with sentimental value

The Cincinnati Enquirer

FALMOUTH, Ky. - They knew their house would need to be demolished. After all, it was sitting in the middle of Shelby Street.

But when John and Anita Tillett saw their home Friday, for the first time since the Licking River raided the city, they saw it in a heap. The officials' decision to raze it left them with even less than a mess.

''There was perfectly good stuff in there,'' Mrs. Tillett said. ''Now we don't have anything.''

The ravaged city was opened Friday afternoon for anyone who could prove they lived there. Inside the river's boundary, the scene was like a twist on Night of the Living Dead: The city was dead and the people were alive.

Along Shelby Street, the catastrophic damage showed in many forms. In front of one house was a rabbit's pen, the animal lying dead inside.

On Woodson Road, a house rested on top of a Toyota Camry and Chrysler LeBaron. The house came from several doors away. Residents said they don't know what happened to the trailer that used to occupy the corner lot.

As Randy McQueen carried out his wife's wedding dress, Lisa McQueen's hands fumbled for the lock on a tiny box, soaked through with water and stained brown.

Standing on the front porch at 419 Riggs, Mrs. McQueen got the box open, her face lighting up the muck surrounding her home.

''I found it. I found it,'' she yelled as she pulled out a shiny gold ring and placed it over her finger, clad in a yellow rubber glove.

Then came the flood of tears.

''My wedding ring. I had to dig for it,'' Mrs. McQueen said.

The McQueens had been in their home for only a half-hour when the ring was found. Mr. McQueen said that was all he could take.

Juanita Hughes circled her Liberty Street home slowly Friday before taking the first tentative steps inside. From the exterior, the blue two-story house appeared to withstand the flood's force, which leveled many nearby houses.

''We are so blessed,'' she said. ''At this end of the block, the houses are standing. At the other end of the block, they're gone.''

Saturday night, Mrs. Hughes and her husband, Rocky, moved most of their belongings to the second floor before fleeing with their three daughters.

Surveying an 8-foot-high water line on their wallpaper, Mrs. Hughes sobbed softly.

''This house is worth what now? Ten cents?'' she asked, dazed at the damage to their three-bedroom home. ''But we have a house to fix. That's more than some people have.''

It looked like laundry day at the end of North Liberty Street. Hanging in trees lining the Licking River bank, there was everything from clothing and hunks of insulation to chairs, toys and pieces of fences.

Around the corner, at Lou Johnson's trailer on Coleman Street, 13-year-old Andrew Johnson struggled to carry out the two deer heads his dad had shot and mounted. Only the antlers could be saved, and the white perch his dad recently caught in the Licking was banged up and covered in mud.

There were only two things Kenneth and Eleanor Gillespie desperately wanted to salvage from their home at 411 Riggs.

High on a shelf sat an old glass jar, filled with coins. It was made into a lamp by the Gillespie children, topped with a shade depicting euchre hands.

''Oh, it's still OK,'' Mrs. Gillespie gasped.

Mr. Gillespie was hunting for a picture.

''There's a photo of me and my two brothers, the only one I have. It was painted in 1937. I've got to find it.''

It was nowhere on the wall, sucked off its hook by rushing flood waters. But Mr. Gillespie found it.

He carried the photo out into the sunshine and proudly pointed out his brother on the left, himself in the middle and on the right.

The soft pink of their cherubic cheeks was barely visible through the moisture and mud stains behind the glass frame, but it didn't matter.

''This is the only thing I wanted,'' Mr. Gillespie said.