Three Teens Survived a Flash Flood at a Texas Bible Camp, but Would Their Faith?

Chip Asberry removed his socks and shoes and rolled up his jeans before he stepped out of the van. The 15-year-old looked over his shoulder just as the wave hit.

He saw it take one person, then another, then he was under water. The current, moving at 60 miles per hour, rendered swimming impossible, and Asberry struggled to keep his head above the water.

“I was just trying not to drown and grabbing onto whatever I could,” he said. Eventually he grabbed a limb and used it to pull himself up into a tree. He lost his glasses in the river, clouding his comprehension of the chaos. God, just let me out of this and I’ll do whatever you want me to do, no matter what it is, Asberry bargained from his perch 40 feet in the air.

A bus recovered from the Guadalupe River after the flood.
Image: San Antonio Express-News via ZUMA Wire A bus recovered from the Guadalupe River after the flood.

Gene Marsh, 14, dug his fingernails into the bark of a different tree and pulled himself up. He broke two ribs in the scramble, but adrenaline overpowered the throbbing pain in his torso. An 11-year-old girl rushed toward him in the water. She had blacked out when the wave hit, and her next memory was Marsh pulling her into the branches, the two of them inching higher up the tree as it shook and swayed amid the current.

“She just kept asking if we were going to go home, and all I could tell her was ‘yeah,’ ” Marsh said, certain they wouldn’t make it out alive. “I couldn’t tell her what I was really thinking.” He heard helicopters circling above, but the current wasn’t slowing.

If anything, it was rising.

In the pre-dawn light of July 17, 1987, nearly 40 kids struggled in the Guadalupe River as it overflowed its banks in Comfort, Texas, 50 miles northwest of San Antonio. They had woken early on their last day of Bible camp and skipped breakfast to get ahead of the looming flood, but they were too late.

Now the trees lining the banks were their only lifeline.

Tara Chatham could hear people yelling, “Head to the trees and hold on!” The 14-year-old made it to one with several people already in it. A group of boys took off their jeans and tied them together into a rope, lowering it to the kids in the water. Chatham tried to grab it but slipped. She went underwater and resurfaced, just once, before she disappeared again.

It would take days to recover the bodies of ten children who perished in the flash flood that morning, one of the deadliest natural disasters in the region of Texas known as the Hill Country. Its anniversary would be commemorated by journalists, with a humble memorial plaque, and in a speech by President George H. W. Bush.

For those left behind when the water receded, the struggle was only beginning. Dreams derailed. Best friends drowned. A sweetheart buried in debris.

There may be no starker image of bad things happening to good people than children giving a week of summer vacation to worship God and study Scripture only to be swallowed up by floodwaters.

All the usual questions about God and evil would ensue. And for surviving campers Asberry, Marsh, and Chatham, one question in particular would linger over time: When the body survives, what determines if faith will?

“God, just let me out of this and I’ll do whatever you want me to do, no matter what it is.” Chip Asberry

Image: Trevor Paulhaus

“God, just let me out of this and I’ll do whatever you want me to do, no matter what it is.” Chip Asberry

The term theodicy first popped up in the early 18th century. But plenty of scholars would say humans—at least those who belong to Abrahamic faiths—have been attempting to square the existence of an all-powerful, loving God with the existence of suffering since Genesis, where Cain first shakes his fist at the heavens.

The Bible offers its earliest take on “modern” theodicy, as we might think of it today, at least six centuries before Christ, when most scholars think the Book of Job was penned.

The 12 disciples grappled aloud with the problem of suffering. In response, Jesus mentioned a local tower that had collapsed atop 18 people and asked his disciples, rhetorically, if they thought victims died because they were especially vile sinners.

Perhaps missing the irony, Pat Robertson offered that explanation on television following the September 11 attacks in 2001, cataloging the various sins embodied by New York City.

The scholarly field of theodicy is vast and imaginative. There are theories that God allows suffering to make us better people. That he allows evil so we can see just how good his blessings really are. That injustice is required as some sort of variable to balance a great mathematical equation that, somehow, atones for all the sin we’ve let into the world.

There will be no debating theory here.

As the theologian David Bentley Hart wrote after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that claimed more than 230,000 lives: “Nothing that occurred that day or in the days that followed told us anything about the nature of finite existence of which we were not already entirely aware.”

Humans, as a group, have always known tragedy. This is a story about how we come to terms with it on our own, as individuals.

The notion that a good God wouldn’t allow suffering has been a growing obstacle to Christian belief for at least four generations—as long as pollsters have examined such things. While only 18 percent of non-Christian baby boomers cite the conundrum as reason for their nonbelief, the Barna Group found that nearly a third of today’s non-Christian youth do. The same goes for millennials.

Among Gen X, the generation to which most of the Comfort flood victims belong, more than 1 in 5 non-Christians say they can’t reconcile the presence of evil with the idea of a loving God.

But no one is born with their hands washed of the God-versus-evil paradox. There is a journey leading to every belief, and the role that suffering plays in that journey—the effect that suffering has on our faith—has only recently become the subject of much study.

On the last night of camp at Pot O’ Gold Ranch, a family-run Christian youth camp in Comfort, pastor Rene Freret felt God urging him to deliver a stern message to the kids in attendance: Get right with God before it’s too late.

He had awoken that morning with a heavy heart. During a week of preaching at the camp, he had noticed bitterness and backbiting among the kids there. “They were just not getting along and fussing,” he said. He took their behavior as a sign they were distant from God.

“Sometimes rebellion comes out because a person hasn’t come to know the Lord,” he said. He stayed in his room all day praying, reading his Bible, and preparing for that night’s sermon.

“Young people,” he said at the close of his message in the heat of the camp’s open-air tabernacle, “if you’ve got a rebellious spirit about you, you need to deal with that because this may be your last chance. You may not see your parents or preacher again. If you’re not right with God, you need to examine your heart and make sure you are.”

It started raining after the campers went to bed that night.

Just after 3 a.m. on the morning of the flood, officials from the local fire department called the camp’s operators to warn them that the Guadalupe River, which runs parallel to the camp’s entrance, was expected to rise. More than 12 inches of rain had recently fallen across the Hill Country, and low-lying areas were already underwater. The river had left its banks before but had never flooded the camp’s facilities, which were more than half a mile up the road.

At the time, the camp’s emergency protocol advised against leaving the camp “during serious floods” but also noted: “There has been no flooding of any of our camp facilities since we are built on high ground.”

It was a Friday, the last day of camp for the 400 kids at Pot O’ Gold. They had paid $65 each to spend five days and four nights away from home, some for the first time ever. Campers stuck to a strict schedule that was heavy on Bible study. They hiked up to the tabernacle twice a day under the scorching July sun. Each afternoon they got three hours of recreation time when they could ride horses, play sports, or go swimming—one pool for boys and another for girls.

The campers were scheduled to leave after breakfast that morning, but the camp operators woke the chaperones early to warn them about the potential flood risk. Breakfast was packed to go as the kids were hastily awoken and corralled into some buses and a van.

Just one road led in and out of the camp, and it passed beside the river. So before the campers could distance themselves from the rising water, they had to face it head on. The caravan drove half a mile north on Pot O’ Gold Road until it forked, less than 200 feet from the river’s edge.

The camp was warned not to let the vehicles go right at the fork, which would lead them over Hermann Sons Crossing, a low-lying bridge that crosses the Guadalupe. Instead, they turned left, driving away from the bridge.

By the time the campers pulled out, the river had already left its banks, spilling several inches of water onto the road near the camp’s entrance. Richard Koons, the youth pastor at Seagoville Road Baptist Church in North Texas, drove the last bus in the caravan. Chatham was on it. Following Koons was a smaller van carrying the remaining campers from his church, including Marsh and Asberry.

Koons would say, decades later, that he believed strongly in God’s sovereignty. “God is in control of everything,” he said. “Our bus actually moved two times in that line. We were actually close to the front, and then because of some circumstances our bus got moved back to the next-to-last bus in line with our van.”

The vehicles in front of him drove through the water without issue, but as Koons turned the steering wheel to the left to make the turn, his bus stalled. “All I could think was, man if I don’t get this bus started I’m going to be in trouble when I get back to Dallas because somebody’s going to have to come get us,” he said. He didn’t sense danger until he looked in his rearview mirror and saw the van behind him was already halfway under water.

He spotted a big tree surrounded by dry land just across the flooded street. He made a quick decision to get the kids get off the bus and have them join hands. “I told them to walk over to the tree and we’ll figure it out,” Koons said.

Many of the campers managed to reach the tree, but by that time the river had expanded and the water was rising quickly. What was dry land seconds before suddenly disappeared under the fast-moving current. The kids tried to climb the tree, but there wasn’t room for all of them. Some fell and others, like Koons, just let go.

“I thought I could swim down to the next tree and that’s when I realized how fast the water was traveling,” Koons said. He managed to grab a limb further downstream and pulled himself into a tree to which several campers were already clinging. He tried to count the kids he could see and quickly came up short.

If, as Koons believes, “God is in control of everything,” then perplexing questions arise: Did God pull Tara Chatham down under the water? Did he pluck her out again?

After falling back into the river, Chatham woke up in a different tree all alone with no memory of how she got there or how much time had passed. As she clung to the tree, she wondered what happened to her brother, Scott, and her friends, and if anyone would ever find her. After what felt like hours, she waved her arms to get the attention of a helicopter passing overhead and a rope was lowered from its belly.

She reached for it but slipped again and fell into the raging river.

As she was pulled downstream, the helicopter dropped close to the water and a rescuer with the Texas Department of Public Safety climbed out onto the skid. “He grabbed the hair on my head and then the back of my shorts and just yanked me in the helicopter,” Chatham said.

While the rest of the morning is a blur, she remembers every second of the rescue. “I can still see him today and smell his smell and everything,” she said. “It was just such a relief, like He saved me. He’s got me now.” He wrapped her in a blanket and held her. Then everything faded to black.

Decades later, Chatham recalls that her ex-husband once called her invincible. But she doesn’t feel that way. Time and again, she’s found herself pleading with God for answers and peace.

“Why us, why our group, why those kids?” she demanded after the accident. Hadn’t they been doing everything right? Hadn’t they been praising God 12 hours before he let the river take them? Why, if he were in control of everything, would he allow this to happen to his children?

Questions like these are at the heart of the God-versus-evil paradox. They populate news stories and Sunday sermons in the wake of every major natural disaster. It turns out, however, that they’re not just academic. They may also be at the root of the psyche’s ability to process and heal after trauma.

Theodicy is not simply “an intellectual exercise,” Abilene Christian University psychologist Richard Beck concluded in a 2008 study. “Theodicy properly understood is an experiential burden. The individual believer must reconcile his or her life circumstance with fundamental beliefs about God.”

Jamie Aten, a psychologist at Wheaton College, would know: His family moved to Mississippi just days before Hurricane Katrina made landfall and ravaged his community. He also survived colon cancer.

“Oftentimes when we go through a trauma, it disrupts our ability to make meaning,” said Aten, who now studies the relationship between natural disasters, faith, and mental health.

“Most of us operate from what some researchers call a ‘just world theory,’ the idea of ‘I’m a good person so good things should happen.’ But then when bad things happen to us, it really can kind of rock the way we understand the world and even the way we view God.”

Research has shown that how a person views God before experiencing suffering plays a big role in determining how they’ll react afterward. Aten illustrates: Say that two Christians who have the same job and attend the same church every week both lose their homes in a natural disaster. The one with a more loving view of God may come away feeling that God protected him and spared his life, while the other, who views God as more wrathful, might feel God is punishing him.

Click here to read more.
Source: Christianity Today