Project Storm Drain Safety’s Real Story-A Family’s Nightmare

June 30th, 2014 – I was just wrapping up dinner with my wife, Lisa, her mother, Betsy, and a friend visiting from out-of-state. We were in a Hy-Vee dining area when my phone rang. It was my youngest son Hunter in a panic. “Logan fell into the storm drain! David went in after him and we can’t find them!” I asked where they were. “Arthur School. By the drain.” My heart jumped into “move it” mode. I looked at my wife as I started to run toward the door… “We have to go. Now. Something’s happened to Logan.” As I headed out the door, a friend noticed our distress and asked what was wrong. I couldn’t answer; I just had to head that way immediately. We jumped in my truck and I stepped on the gas heading towards Arthur Elementary as my wife asked me to slow down and get us there safely.

Upon arriving at the storm drain we met my ex-wife, and the boys’ mother, Candice, and Hunter. We headed from 20th Street to 27th Street yelling Logan’s name down the manhole covers along the way. I’ve never heard a noise as sickening as the water blasting through the pipes. The power was overwhelming and ripped straight at my soul with a fear I’ve never felt. It sounded like a freight train; such power and force that the thought of my son inside there was gut-wrenching. We met up with first responders who were gathering information on where this pipe was heading.

At this time we met Officer Anne Deutmeyer, who was to become our police and fire liaison. Suddenly, our family was a part of a search and rescue for our own. We headed back to our truck to follow her to a Command Point on Center Point Road and Oakland Road near Cedar Lake … 1 ½ miles from where Logan and David disappeared. As we jumped in our truck, we saw our friend Sarah, who called a troop of friends to meet us there.

A parent’s worst nightmare. We were right in the middle of one. The rain had fallen so hard that the drain pipe (54”) only had 6 inches of air at the top when I got there. Terror started to set in, but I knew I had to stay in solution mode for the time being. Soon we heard that our son’s best friend David had made it through the system and was in St. Luke’s Hospital getting checked out. He had gathered clothes from a homeless man under the bridge because the force of the water had taken his clothes. “My God, where is Logan?”

Until late into the night we searched … Around the lake, through train yards and heavy brush, calling his name. The Incident Commander asked us to rest and meet to resume the search in the morning. Rest…? Sleep…? My god, I didn’t see it. My mind raced as a national reporter asked if he could speak to me. I agreed only in the hope that if someone had seen him they might help. I told them we figured he was hanging on to something inside the drain system. He was a big strong kid and we knew if there was a way, he’d survive.

The next morning, July 1st, many police and fire personnel and dozens of friends and family went out to find Logan. The whole area underground, over ground and anywhere we could think of was searched. Chaplains from each department gathered us in prayer throughout the day. My heart held great hope of finding my son; in my heart and mind he was alive. The lake area was searched with divers, dogs, and sonar but there was no Logan to be found.

Somewhere between 2-3 PM my soul started to lose hope. The underground team had made their way to within about 200 yards of the lake. Heavy debris and high water inside the pipe were creating a gloomy outcome in my mind. I believe I was preparing to hear the worst. How could I prepare for the inevitable news? I wasn’t ready. We chatted again with Officer Deutmeyer and Command. Where could Logan be if he wasn’t in the lake or in the pipe? “Maybe someone has Logan somewhere and hasn’t heard the story?” I was grasping at straws. The thought of losing such a great kid at 17 yrs old — a kind, loving, respectful son who filled my world with joy every day of his life — was just unthinkable.

Somewhere around 4 PM we were called into the Mobile Command Center to talk about the next step for the rescue. My phone rang — “They found your boy…” “What…? Where…?”; at the same time, the radios in the van were coming to life. Just then the Commander appeared, wearing that “horrible news” face. They had found Logan’s body, 75 yards out in the lake in 3 feet of water.

Our son was gone and we fell apart right then and there. All of our friends and family were outside hearing the news and we heard their cries. No words can explain the pain and suffering that our family was feeling. The police and firefighters were visibly shaken up as well. They, and the entire community, so wanted to find him alive.

In the days that followed, our family and friends gathered around us and held us up. We cried, planned services, gathered pictures, then cried some more. The world had lost a wonderful man. Someone whom everyone would have been better off knowing. I watched news reports and read story after story on the Web that started with, “Teen Dies in Storm Sewer Drain”. It prompted me to contact the press to tell the story of “Logan.” With all I could muster, I chatted with great reporters about my wonderful son.

As the grieving continued throughout this past year, many things have happened. Our family approached the city with a couple of great attorneys that are friends of ours. We told them, “We want it fixed, that’s it”; money wasn’t going to bring Logan back. We eventually settled with the city of Cedar Rapids on a plan to solve the storm drain issue which had to meet our approval. Our attorneys worked hard to strike the deal and only wanted $1000 apiece for a few months’ work, which the city gladly paid. We live here and our friends and their families live here. The thought of one more family going through what we were was truly unbearable. Our city gladly upgraded the site, which today is much safer than before.

We had our “firsts” this year: holidays, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Logan’s birthday, but Memorial Day weekend was especially hard for me personally. We attended some of Logan’s best buddies’ graduations. Logan was supposed to graduate high school with them this year. My heart was heavy.

Over that weekend storms raged in Texas and Oklahoma. Flooding was heavy and loss of life was being reported. I seldom watch the news, especially when it concerns storms. A friend of mine in the press contacted me to explain that 2 more had perished in circumstances very similar to Logan almost a year ago. I had talked with him throughout the year about different ways to get the word out about dangers of storm drains, so he thought this would be a good opportunity. I had seen other families contacted about their loss when Logan died, so I knew they would do the same if and when it happened again. I agreed to do some interviews.

The night before the interviews, I contacted a national expert who also was called upon during almost every tragedy since 2000. In my email I asked him to contact me, I had some ideas and so did he. I stood alone by the site where Logan disappeared, a new safety grate in place, thinking about all the families and the horrific pain that maybe only we knew. I looked up with a very heavy heart and asked, “What am I supposed to do with this?” As a calm came over me an answer came, “No one is going to push for a change, except you.” That was not the answer I wanted. “Ok…then I’m going to need A LOT of help.”

I have found a lot of help. Ken MacKenzie, our nation’s expert on this subject, jumped right in and with the help of many volunteer organizations, our city’s Police and Fire Chiefs, our City Assistant Manager and Public Works Manager and many more we have begun a journey with one goal in mind. Building a model described in these pages that will attack this problem on all fronts.

I’d like to thank each and every one, including our newly formed Board of Directors, for entering into a call for action. Our mission is clear, our hearts are engaged for a worthwhile goal: “No More Senseless Deaths”.

Sincerely a loving, proud father of two wonderful sons and strong advocate

Mark Blake