Ra­dio host does his part

‘Houston is in dis­tress, so you stop ev­ery­thing and help,’ Lopez says

USA TODAY US Edition - - FRONT PAGE - Chris­tine Bren­nan v

KILT’s John Lopez and his boat throw the stranded a life­line

John Lopez pulled into a mid­dle-aged cou­ple’s front yard on a 16-foot fish­ing boat Tuesday af­ter­noon. Although they had never met, the Hous­tonarea cou­ple was thrilled to see him. He tossed them two life vests and helped them onto the boat. He never said his name, nor did they say theirs. There was no need for in­tro­duc­tions. The cou­ple was safe, and Lopez was again on his way to find more sur­vivors in the wake of the over­whelm­ing devastation left by Hur­ri­cane Har­vey.

Mo­ments later, though, when Lopez let out what those of us who know him rec­og­nize as his hearty and dis­tinc­tive laugh, the cou­ple quickly glanced at each other, then did a dou­ble take, giv­ing Lopez a good, long look. Although they never said it, Lopez knew. He knew that they now re­al­ized the man who had bor- rowed a boat to come to their res­cue was not sim­ply an un­known good Sa­mar­i­tan, but the pop­u­lar sports ra­dio per­son­al­ity they lis­ten to daily on Houston’s KILT Sport­sRa­dio 610.

Not that that mat­tered to Lopez, then or ever. “These were reg­u­lar peo­ple,” he told USA TO­DAY Sports in a phone in­ter­view Wed­nes­day. “They never thought the wa­ter would get that high, so you get them out and they just hug your neck and you never see them again, but you feel good you did it.”

John and I go back to the late 1980s, when he wrote for the Houston Chron­i­cle and we some­times shared a row in the me­dia tri­bune at venues across seven Olympic Games.

In 1991, we even shared a wild cab ride through the dark streets of Ha­vana dur­ing the Pan Amer­i­can Games, with John trans­lat­ing for the two of us. We haven’t seen each other in sev­eral years, but when I looked at his Twit­ter feed Tuesday, I knew I had to get in touch.

“(My boat) in dry dock 100 (miles) away. But I have truck, life vests, etc. (Mes­sage) me if you have a boat. I’ll pick up.”

Over the next half-hour, Lopez, an avid fish­er­man whose home was not flooded, sent out a few sim­i­lar tweets. He re­ceived a dozen re­sponses and ended up with two small fish­ing boats, us­ing one for the first part of the af­ter­noon, then switch­ing to the sec­ond for the rest of the day.

“Have ac­quired a Jon boat, about to start res­cue ef­forts in Walden on Lake Houston. DM me address if you need out.”

Forty min­utes later, Lopez sent out an­other tweet, this one ac­com­pa­nied by a video of his view of the flooded streets he was travers­ing. His mes­sage was sim­ple: “@ me if you need help”

Over the next 10 hours, Lopez res­cued 18 to 20 peo­ple.

“Some of them got on the boat with only a trash bag full of clothes,” he said. “They’ve just lost ev­ery­thing, yet they’re say­ing, ‘God is good.’ Their ap­pre­ci­a­tion was amaz­ing. By the time I was done, I re­al­ized I might have helped them, but they helped me more. They made me feel bet­ter.”

There were some “spooky” mo­ments, he said. He turned into one neigh­bor­hood and spot­ted a white truck, to­tally sub­merged, with its en­gine run­ning, its lights on and its wind­shield wipers go­ing.

“Oh crap,” Lopez said. “I had to work my way over to look and see what was in there. But I’m think­ing to my­self, ‘I don’t want to do this. What if there’s a body in there?’ ”

Thank­fully, the truck was empty. “I guess the wa­ter was ris­ing so fast, that per­son got out that fast. I hope they are OK.”

Lopez talked to one man in an up­scale neigh­bor­hood who wanted to stay put on the sec­ond floor of his flooded home but was con­cerned about the neigh­bor across the street. So Lopez drove the boat to the front of that house, tied up to a brick ban­is­ter, jumped into nearly chest-deep wa­ter, slowly pushed open the front door and called out, “Any­body there?”

No an­swer. He waded into the foyer, then the liv­ing room. A garbage bag and pic­ture frame floated by. Soon, he no­ticed some­thing else: an empty wheel­chair, float­ing side­ways in the game room.

It was time for an­other “Oh crap.” He trudged up to the land­ing of a stair­case and yelled up­stairs. “I didn’t hear a thing. That house was va­cant, thank­fully.”

Lopez of­ten found him­self mo- tor­ing through wa­ter that he fig­ured was about 6 feet deep. The roads were fa­mil­iar, of course. This is where he lives. On one boule­vard he drives of­ten, the tops of the mail­boxes were his only nav­i­ga­tion sys­tem.

As ex­pe­ri­enced as he is at boating, it wasn’t al­ways easy. “I ac­tu­ally bumped into what I thought was a log and re­al­ized it was the top of a car.”

The devastation was all around him. At some dis­tance, he spot­ted a sign list­ing the clear­ance for a road: 16 feet 8 inches. “Wa­ter was touch­ing the bot­tom of the sign.”

Lopez didn’t just save peo­ple. He res­cued a cou­ple of dogs and even came upon a barn, help­ing lead a woman’s two horses to safety by pok­ing a stick into the flood­wa­ter to find the shal­low­est points for the horses to nav­i­gate.

Through­out the day, Lopez was never alone in his ef­forts. “The best part about it was all the peo­ple who were out there on boats, prob­a­bly 30-40 dif­fer­ent boats, fire­fight­ers, the Coast Guard, just peo­ple out there try- ing to help.”

I asked him if he had seen the re­cently re­leased movie Dunkirk, the World War II story of the res­cue of thou­sands of Bri­tish sol­diers by hun­dreds of Bri­tish ci­ti­zens in plea­sure boats.

“Oh my gosh, it re­ally was like that,” Lopez said. “I was by the Costco and I turned around and I saw like six boats com­ing at me. I don’t mean to sound overly dra­matic, but it was like a mil­i­tary land­ing.”

And he, of course, was an in­te­gral part of it.

“I was just re­ally try­ing to help. I just wanted to do what needed to be done. The fish­er­man’s code says when you see a boat in dis­tress, you stop ev­ery­thing and help that boat. Now Houston is in dis­tress, so you stop ev­ery­thing and help.

“I knew I had the ex­per­tise. I just needed a boat.”

JOHN LOPEZ

John Lopez spent Tuesday in a boat res­cu­ing peo­ple stranded in the Houston area.

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