In Sumter, good Samaritans come to the rescue

Dan Torbert carried nine girls from an Americus youth home in 1994, saving them from flash flooding

AMERICUS — In the late night hours of July 5, 1994, on Lee Street and Lee Street Road, most people stayed in their homes, listening to the rain, or listening to cars hitting what were quickly becoming deep flood waters, a sound former Lee Street resident Donnie McCrary likened to the sound of something heavy hitting a brick wall.

Such is the power of water.

Go here to see the 20th anniversary special section on the Flood of 1994.

But when Dan Torbert received a panicked phone call from Judy Tott, director at the time of the Methodist Youth Home housing nine young girls, he did not think twice about what he had to do.

“Judy called my dad. He went up there, parked his truck up on the road, and saw that the house was completely surrounded with water,” recalls George Torbert, Dan’s son, who was 18 at the time. “Those girls, they were scared. They had all huddled in one room of the house, and the water was chest high. He carried each of them out, one by one, through all that water. There were a couple times he slipped, but he got all of those girls out and to safety. After he carried out the last girl, the waters broke the door on the house.”

Had Dan Torbert not acted as quickly as he had, the fatality rate could have easily jumped from 15 to 24.

George Torbert joined his father on Lee Street Road shortly after to assist his father and rescue crews where he could. When asked what made him venture out into such dangerous circumstances, he replied quickly and simply, “I’m always going to do what I can to help my dad.”

Their next rescue was a daring and delicate one. A young couple and their baby were trapped, well off the road, amongst trees. Dan, George, and rescuers formed a human chain to successfully rescue the family.

“After we go the family out of the tree, I was going to head back home to try and rest,” said George Torbert, who remembered every vivid detail of that night, as many do. “I remember thinking that I heard someone holler. I stopped my truck. Then I heard it again. At this point, there was one fire truck left, and they were leaving.”

George stopped the truck and alerted them to the cries for help. Firefighters shined their lights into the trees and saw a man standing precariously on the top of his truck, as flood waters continued to surge, increasing intensity as the seconds ticked by. “DNR had showed up, and they had a boat. Right when they came, the man’s truck began to roll. He jumped; it was his last chance. He managed to grab the side of the boat and rescuers were able to pull him in.”

It is safe to say that George Torbert inherited his instinct to help from his father, an electrician by trade. Speaking to the Youth Home rescue and his involvement in the Sheriff’s Department’s youth programs, George says of his father, “He’ll do anything he can to help children in any way. He has a special spot in his heart for them.”

While Dan will risk his life to save another, he does not care to be touted as a hero. “He never does anything for recognition,” his son says with a smile in his voice.

But others obviously felt Dan Torbert deserved special recognition for his efforts that night, specifically the Youth Home rescue. In 1996, Dan was presented The Wireless Foundation’s VITA Award for his rescue of the nine girls. VITA, which is “life” in Latin, is an award presented to people who use wireless communications to save lives, help in emergencies, and stop crime. He was presented the award in Washington, D.C., by actor William Shatner.

And the humble hero likely wanted little to do with all the attention he received that night and in the aftermath of the 1994 flood.

When asked what makes his father so special, and what values his father instilled in him, George Torbert did not hesitate in his answer: “He taught me that you do what you can to help, whenever you can.”

These simple words could be the Torbert family’s credo, spoken and lived by a modest man with a heroic heart.