True heroism is remarkably sober, very undramatic. It is not the urge to surpass all others at whatever cost, but the urge to serve others, at whatever cost. ”
The hero of South Houston is an ordinary guy. And if you ever have the pleasure of talking with him, he’ll tell you just that.
Willie Rios is as humble as a hot Texas day is long. His idea of business casual is wearing a clean cap with his faded blue jeans and well-worn work boots. He’s a farmer, a John Deere devotee, and he owns a small business. He also serves on the city council as vice mayor.
Weekends are precious when you spend your time mowing a field, figuring out finances, or passing new legislation. So after putting the kids to bed on a late August Saturday night, he pushed himself back into his comfortable couch and watched boxing on TV.
He glanced up at the clock. It was 11:20 p.m.
A Most Unwelcome Guest
“Everyone knew Harvey was coming but its track was still uncertain. I’ve been through hurricanes before, so I wasn’t too concerned,” Rios said. “But my wife comes in and tells me to check the cars because the water is coming up. I thought she was messing with me.”
He looked outside and noticed water above the mufflers.
“That’s when I said ‘oh shoot, we’re in trouble.’ I’ve never seen more than six inches of water on my property,” he said. “But this was different. The sheer amount of rain coming down was indescribable.”
Rios, confident that his wife and kids would be fine, goes to check on his neighbors. Since the cars weren’t going anywhere, he grabs the keys to his 5 Series Tractor and takes off.
“Minutes later, that six inches of standing water is three to four feet deep. I stop at the community center, and our firefighters tell me the entire city is flooded,” he says. “Our three fire trucks are under water. Police cars are stuck at the station. The 911 system is out because a communications tunnel flooded. I asked the fire chief, ‘what do I do?’”
You have a tractor, Willie, he says.
“I went to my Dad’s house and got him out on the tractor. He had a couple feet of water inside. Then my phone started ringing.”
The Lifesaving Journey
One resident pleads to be saved. A man suffering with cancer needs to be rescued. Children are trapped.
“The first house we went to, we got an elderly lady, two babies, and their mother out,” says Rios. “We went to another residence and got a woman who had lupus into the brush hog. We put the babies in the front with us and took them to the community center. Then, the sheriff called. A family of 14 needed immediate help.”
Rios put the tractor in four wheel drive since the water had now risen between four to five feet deep. He put the bucket down to shield the battery and took it easy on the clutch.
“We had to cross a flooded bridge over a bayou. The water was now above five feet deep and it spun the tractor around,” he says. “So I stuck the front-end loader down and anchored to a piece of concrete. We finally made it to the home.”
Rios and another man went inside and led the family out. It was clearly a life-or-death situation. And the only way to survive was climbing aboard the tractor.
A Bad Situation Worsens
“We put family members in the bucket, on the hood, on the fenders, on the brush hog. We had 16 people ranging from two to 90 years old holding on for dear life,” he says. “I was praying to make it. Because if we had to walk, it wasn’t going to be good.”
Clearly, Rios’ tractor was not designed for emergencies like this, but desperate times call for extra-ordinary effort and ingenuity.
The tractor slowly made its way down the street. That’s when the group discovered a large oak tree in their path. Their one way out was blocked and water was rising rapidly.
“I didn’t know what to do so I tried to push it out of the way – roots and all – so we could get by. I don’t know if it was the tractor or if God was on our side, but the tractor moved the tree. When that happened, I thought that it was a sign because I’ve never pushed a tractor that hard for that long.
Twenty-five harrowing blocks later, they arrived at the community center. But there was more bad news.
“A firefighter called and told me I needed to come tow them out. They were stuck in the fire truck on Arkansas Street,” says Rios. “I get there only to find 17 residents, including firefighters in this big old heavy hand-me-down vehicle.”
There’s simply no way, Rios thought. No way.
“Those trucks sit low and block a lot of water. So I hooked up a line, put the tractor in the lowest gear, and couldn’t believe it when we started moving,” he says. “I towed at five miles per hour. We made three 90 degree turns. People were jumping on along the way. It was a miracle that we made it safely to a school.”
Rios went home at 9:15 the next morning to sleep a few minutes. Then he got up and went to rescue even more folks across his town, of which 75% was damaged by storms. He estimates he and his trusted John Deere tractor saved more than 200.
“The deepest we got the tractor was five and a half feet. It went through it like it was nothing,” says Rios. “We saved lives because of that John Deere tractor. It was amazing, man. What that tractor did for my city – people keep coming by and asking to see it.
“When I pushed that oak tree out of the way, it bent the bucket and the boom and still managed to run. The water, though, took a toll. Now, the tractor won’t start.”
Word of the rescue spread quickly on social media. A Houston TV station came down to interview him. Doggett Equipment Services, a local John Deere dealer with whom Rios does business, offered to help.
“They said ‘Willie, we want to fix your tractor.’ I told them it took a lot of water and won’t start. They said you and your dad don’t have to mess with it. We’re going to fix it. And then, John Deere stepped in to cover the costs. I still don’t know what to say. I’m speechless.”
Rios credits several individuals from Doggett Equipment for graciously managing his repair, including: Ryan Cartwright, used equipment manager; Judd Salas, sales representative, Curtis Sheffield, shop technician and Veronica Velasquez, assistant service manager.
Walt Butler, Ag & Turf territory customer service manager, Neil Miller, C&F territory customer support?manager, and Doggett Equipment helped ensure the repair costs were covered. Brookside Equipment, a local John Deere dealer, was also key in helping order tractor parts.
With his tractor repaired, Rios is doing all he can to help his hometown. He still can’t believe the damage.
“I only had an inch or two in my house. It was the only house around that didn’t flood,” he says. “Around the neighborhood, many folks lost everything. We’re not in a third world country but it certainly looks like it. Trash, debris, and raw sewage is everywhere. It makes you appreciate what you have.
This storm tore our city apart but brought us together. People were just helping people. And that’s a beautiful thing.”
Tractors are not intended for transporting people in the manner described in this story. John Deere does not advocate transporting people in this manner.