Social media reconnects woman reported dead in Detroit flooding, man who saved her

George Hunter
The Detroit News

Warren – — Thanks to social media and a little luck, Jena David connected with the stranger who whisked her away from rising flood waters last week and carried her on his shoulders to safety, possibly saving her life.

David, 30, mistakenly was reported by authorities as one of three people who died Aug. 11 during Metro Detroit’s worst flood in 90 years. The Detroit News first reported Saturday, however, that she had survived. The Sterling Heights college psychology major believes a higher power helped her live through the catastrophe.

“I’m a very religious person,” she said. “I feel in my heart God was there for me that night.”

So was Dustin Rowen.

As the torrential rain fell during Monday’s afternoon rush hour, Rowen and David were headed in opposite directions. David was northbound on Van Dyke, on her way home from Wayne State University, where she had worked on her master’s thesis in educational psychology.

Rowen, a 25-year-old optician who recently moved to Michigan from Spokane, Wash., was driving toward his Canton Township home after getting off work at a Shelby Township eye doctor’s office.

As the downpour intensified, the water on Van Dyke rose so high that the road became impassible and was choked with stalled vehicles.

“I knew my little car (a 2011 Volkswagen GTI) wasn’t going to make it through the water so I drove to the highest ground I could find: in the corner of the Lowe’s parking lot,” Rowen said.

“I saw that there were people trapped inside their cars, and there were maybe 20-30 people standing around taking pictures and videos with their cellphones, not doing anything to help,” he said.

“I wasn’t raised like that. I just did what I knew had to be done.”

‘The real hero’

Rowen said he helped “three or four” people out of their cars before he spotted a woman squirming inside a 2003 Ford Focus. “It seemed like she was panicking,” he said.

David said she was indeed in a panic. She recalls a stranger opening her car door and pulling her out, but she said the episode remains a blur.

Rowen, however, recalls it vividly.

“She was really freaking out,” he said of David. “She was on the phone talking to someone, and I told her, ‘Put your phone in your purse. I need you to hold onto me, and I’m going to carry you out of here.’”

Rowen hefted David onto his shoulders and carried her through chest-high water to a Buddy’s Pizza restaurant, where about 150 patrons stood on tables to avoid the rising water.

“I set her onto a table and held her hand,” Rowen said. “She kept trying to go to sleep, but I figured I’d better not let her. I don’t have any medical training, but I just thought I should try to keep her awake.”

One of the customers, a woman wearing scrubs, offered to help. “She said she was a nurse,” Rowen said. “I figured (David) was in good hands, so I went back outside to help other people get out of their cars.”

Judy Szczesny, 76, who was at the restaurant celebrating an upcoming wedding, said Rowen was one of many Good Samaritans that night.

“He was the real hero,” she said. “But there were others: the nurse, and the firemen who really got there quickly after we called.”

Warren firefighters, responding to a 911 call, transported David to St. John Macomb Hospital, then returned to the restaurant, using a boat to rescue patrons a few at a time.

‘I thought I was too late’

In the confusion after the flood, Warren police, responding to a report from fire officials, told the media David died. David, who was released from the hospital that night, said she was surprised the next morning to see television news accounts of her “death.”

Rowen also believed David was dead. After helping several more people get out of their vehicles, he abandoned his plan to head home and instead went back to Shelby Township, where he hunkered down for the night in a hotel room.

“That night I watched the news, and I saw a story about how a woman who died after firemen took her from the Buddy’s in Warren,” he said. “She really didn’t look good that night, so I figured she was dead. I did all I could to save her, but I thought I was too late.”

Early Saturday, Rowen said he couldn’t sleep because he was bothered by David’s reported death, so he logged onto the Internet.

“I started looking up stories to see if maybe I could contact her family,” he said. “That’s when I saw (The News’) story and found out the good news.”

Rowen posted a comment after the story: “I'm so happy she is ok! ... I pulled her from her vehicle. I'm just glad to see she is ok!!!”

He then found David on Facebook and sent a friend request. Within hours, she accepted, and the two exchanged phone numbers.

“I just told him, ‘Thanks so much,’ David said. “He told me he’s really happy I’m alive.”

David and Rowen plan to meet for the second time at Buddy’s Pizza — presumably under less hectic circumstances.

“I just want to thank him in person,” David said. “He did a great thing. I feel like he might have saved my life.”

Rowen waved off the notion that he’s a hero.

“It’s just the way I was raised,” he said. “You don’t stand around taking pictures with your cellphone when someone needs help — you jump in there and help.”

(313) 222-2134