[Editor's note: The following excerpt takes place after the storm had intensified, and Isaac Cline moved his family to the second floor of their house. The water on the first floor had risen to nine feet. Houses all around them were crumbling into the churning sea. Isaac, his brother Joseph -- also employed by the weather service -- Isaac's pregnant wife and their three children, along with dozens of terrified neighbors, were packed in one room with one window. Even so, Isaac still felt his house would remain standing. Hadn't he predicted that no storm could inflict catastrophic damage on Galveston? And then something struck the house with terrific force.]

Isaac was alone in the water. His family was gone. He flailed his arms and reached deep underwater and kicked his legs to feel for soft things, clothing, someone alive. He felt only square shapes, planks, serrated edges. He had been inside the house; now he was outside in darkness, in wind so fast it planed the water. There was lightning. He saw debris everywhere, jutting from the sea. He saw a child. He shimmied free of the timbers and swam hard. The rain stung; he could hold his eyes open for only a few seconds at a time. He came to her and felt his arm grow from the water and circle her, and he knew immediately the child was his Esther, his six-year-old. His baby. He spoke into her ear. She cried and grabbed him hard and put him under, but he was delighted. She asked for her mother. He had no answer. The house began to break up. He swam away with her.

He was elated; he was distraught. He had found one daughter but lost everyone else. His memory of them would be tinted the yellow of lamplight. He tried to place them in the room, and by doing so, to place them in the sea. His wife had been with him in the center of the room with Esther. His two eldest daughters had been near the window, beside Joseph. Why had they not surfaced, too?

Isaac and his baby drifted. There was more lightning. He coughed water through his nose and mouth. In the next flare, he saw three figures hanging tight to floating wreckage. Isaac and Esther swam toward them against the wind. He heard a shout.

Joseph Cline: "My heart suddenly leaped with uncontrollable joy. In two figures that clung to the drift about one hundred feet to leeward, I discovered my brother and his youngest child."

Isaac: "We placed the children in front of us, turned our backs to the winds and held planks, taken from the floating wreckage, to our backs to distribute and lighten the blows that the wind-driven debris was showering upon us continually."

Joseph: "Our little group now numbered five. We remained close together, climbing and crawling from one piece of wreckage to another, with each of the latter in turn sinking under our weight. At one time it seemed as though we were indeed lost. A weather-battered hulk that had once been a house came bearing down upon us, one side upreared at an angle of about forty-five degrees, at a height from six to eight feet higher than our drift. I was conscious of being direly frightened, but I retained sufficient presence of mind to leap as the monster reached us and to get a grip with my hands on the highest edge of the wreck. My weight was enough to drag it perceptibly lower in the water, and I called my brother, who added his weight to my own."

Isaac: "Sometimes the blows of debris were so strong that we would be knocked several feet into the surging waters, when we would fight our way back to the children and continue the struggle to survive."

Joseph: "At one point, two other castaways, a man and a woman, joined us on the wreckage that, at that time, was serving us as a lifeboat. The strangers remained with us for some time, until the man crawled up to where I sat, pulled the two children away, and tried to shelter himself behind my body. I pushed him indignantly away and drew the children back. He then repeated the unspeakable performance. This time I drew out a knife that I carried and threatened him with it."

They drifted for hours aboard a large raft of wreckage, first traveling well out to sea, then, when the wind shifted to come from the southeast and south, back into the city. For the first time they heard cries of help, these coming from a large two-story house directly in their path. Their raft bulldozed the house into the sea.

The cries stopped.

A rocket of timber struck Isaac and knocked him down but only dazed him. Joseph saw a small girl struggling in the sea and assumed that somehow Esther had fallen from Isaac's grasp. He plucked her from the water and gathered her close to the other girls. Allie May, the eldest, cried out, "Papa! Papa! Uncle Joe is neglecting Rosemary and me for this strange child!"

Stunned, Joseph took a close look at the girl. It was not Esther at all. He looked over his shoulder and saw Isaac bent over his baby, shielding her from the flying debris. This girl was a stranger.

Their raft ran aground at 28th Street and Avenue P, four blocks from where they once had lived. They saw a house with a light in the window, and climbed inside. Safe. A miracle had occurred, Isaac knew. Nothing else could explain why he and his three daughters were still alive. Yet the enormity of what he did lose now came home to him. His children wept for their mother, but soon out of sheer exhaustion they fell asleep. Isaac lay awake for a time, hoping his wife somehow had survived.

And there was this: In the midst of the Clines' voyage, a beautiful retriever climbed aboard their raft. It was Joseph's dog. Somehow in the storm he had sensed them and swum after them. The dog was delighted to see Joseph, Isaac, and the children, but he sensed, too, that someone was missing. He went one by one to each of them, as if marking a checklist. One scent was absent. The dog raced to the edge of the raft and peered into the water. Joseph called him back. The dog stood scrabbling at the edge, obviously torn by conflicting needs. But it was clear where his passion lay. The dog ignored Joseph and prepared to jump. Joseph lunged for him, but the dog entered the sea, and soon he was gone.

 

Text excerpted from Isaac's Storm by Erik Larson. Copyright © 1999 by Erik Larson. Audio excerpt from Isaac's Storm audiobook, copyright © 1999. All rights reserved. No part of these excerpts may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.


Copyright © 1999, Random House, Inc.