3 victims were caught in cars amid perils hidden by darkness

  • Article by: MATT MCKINNEY and TOM FORD , Star Tribune staff writers
  • Updated: August 20, 2007 - 12:32 AM

Two people plunged to their deaths when their car tumbled into a deep chasm on a dark and winding county highway west of Winona. Another was a man who got his two companions to safety in Houston County, only to lose his own fight with the raging waters.

WITOKA, MINN. - Two of the people caught up in Sunday's flooding plunged to their deaths when their car tumbled into a deep chasm that opened on a dark and winding county highway west of Winona.

Another victim was a man who got two of his traveling companions to safety in his floating car in Houston County, only to lose his own fight with the raging waters.

Victor and Joyce Gensmer, husband and wife who had lived in Witoka for 40 years, died before dawn Sunday as they drove to St. Anne's Hospital, where Joyce worked as a nurse's assistant.

"Great people. That's all I can say. Great people," said Jean Amundson, who lives next door to the Gensmers.

The couple, driving before sunrise, would have had little warning that the road ahead wasn't there. Like other areas hit by the flood, Hwy. 17 was deceptively damaged by the surge of rainwater that ran down valleys and creeks.

The road surface and embankments were at first largely unscathed, despite a torrent of water that ran down a gully next to the road during the worst of the storm. Halfway down the hill, a metal culvert drew the water under the road.

The water then flowed into the valley below.

But sometime in the night, the water overwhelmed the culvert and began eating away at the soil beneath the road, carrying rocks, dirt -- and eventually asphalt -- into the valley. By morning, a 15-foot-wide gap in the road had appeared. It was 25 feet deep but looked like nothing more than a thick black line across the road to drivers approaching at highway speeds.

The first driver to fall in was newspaper deliveryman James Robert, 61, of Witoka. He was up early, substituting for the normal driver and was headed downhill toward Winona in his white Ford Escort sometime around 5 a.m., said his friend and housemate Eleanor Lord.

His car tumbled end over end into the gap, blowing out windows, exploding the airbags and crushing the car's front. Amazingly, he survived. He crawled back to the road, where a woman who had stopped her car in time picked him up and drove him home, said Lord. He never learned her name, he said.

It dawned on Lord that if her daughter hadn't been visiting from out of town, "I would have been riding with him."

Lord's sons took Robert to the hospital. It was there that he learned about the Gensmers' car.

Amundson, their neighbor, went on frequent walks with Joyce Gensmer, 67. They often shared news over the fence and were preparing for Victor's 80th birthday party next week.

The couple has two sons, one of whom is autistic and was home alone after his parents died. He's been taken to a group home, said Amundson.

Saves two, loses his own life

In Houston County, David Blackburn, his wife, Dawn, and a friend were on their way home from a concert at Fort McCoy and reached La Crescent Township by about midnight Saturday, said Dawn Blackburn's aunt Lori Stoen of Spring Grove.

They were driving along County Road 6 when they came up to a culvert that was waterlogged, Stoen said. Not thinking the water was that deep, they tried to drive through, but the car slid off into a ditch, she said.

David Blackburn, 37, helped his wife and their friend get in a nearby tree, but then his foot got stuck, apparently wedged between the car and a branch, she said.

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