The story behind those little crosses
You can’t drive far without coming across one of those roadside shrines that people erect to memorialize loved ones who died on our highways.
There are quite a few in the metropolitan area and even several in Shawnee.
The little crosses are all reminders of lives lost, of families ripped asunder.
But to my mind, one of the most poignant of these little memorials is alongside the Kansas Turnpike, about 11 miles southwest of Emporia. They’re easy to miss, but if you watch out the passenger-side window as you drive south from Emporia through the Flint Hills, you’ll see the six little crosses. The crosses are placed there in memory of Melissa Rogers of Liberty, Mo., her four children, and a would-be good Samaritan who helped several people to safety before he, too, was washed away.
The Jacobs Creek Flood, which even has its own citation on Wikipedia, happened on Labor Day weekend in 2003.
In the normal course of events, the creek passes underneath the turnpike, unremarked, through a culvert. But events on Aug. 30, 2003, were anything but normal. Heavy rains pounded the Jacobs Creek watershed for several hours that day. Total rainfall by 8 p.m. was estimated at 6 to 8 inches.
By 8:30 p.m., the culvert reached its capacity and the water began to rise up the embankment of the turnpike, eventually spilling over onto the northbound lanes. By 9 p.m., the water crossed the northbound lanes and began to accumulate against the concrete barriers separating the northbound and southbound lanes of traffic. Vehicles began to stall in the northbound lane and traffic was blocked.
About 9:30 p.m., the relentless tide overtopped the barriers, carrying 12 of them away, along with seven stalled vehicles.
Thankfully, most of the vehicles were empty. The exception was a minivan occupied by Robert Rogers of Liberty, Mo.; his wife, Melissa; and their four children, Makenah, Zachery, Nicholas and Alenah. Rogers, who survived, told authorities that he and his wife discussed leaving their car but decided against it because they weren’t certain they could retain their grip on all four children.
In the end, he was the only survivor. Authorities found the crumpled minivan the next day, about a mile and a half downstream. The bodies of three of the children were still strapped in their seats. The fourth child was found a short distance away. It took some additional time before Mrs. Rogers’ body was found in a retention pond about two miles south of the turnpike. (That pond also yielded the body of Albert Larson of Fort Worth, Texas, who was credited by authorities with helping several people get out of their flooded cars before he was swept away.)
It’s a sad story. If there’s any positive side to it, it’s that the toll may have been higher had it not been for the efforts of Larson, who helped others to safety before he was swept away. And, as always, there probably are some unsung heroes, who quietly went about saving lives without sticking around to take credit.
But this is just one story. With enough research, it might be repeated for every one of those little memorials we see along our highways.