ANES STATION - A Marshall County dairyman's life was saved Monday morning from the swift waters of Rock Creek where every year he and others fish for suckers returning to lay eggs and restart their life cycle.
It was late on Easter Sunday when Tom Hunter decided to go fishing despite the current. "I reckon I fell down and hit my head," Tom said Wednesday with friends and family gathered 'round him at Rock Creek Market in Verona.
"I lost track of time," said Tom, 75, soft spoken with few words for direct answers.
Hays Richardson, 20, a cabinetmaker at Custom Interiors, is one of Tom's fishing buddies. Hays found Tom with his legs jammed in the fork of two branches of a submerged tree, held there by the force of flowing water amid brush and trash that's washed down a creek.
"He was hung up and there was no way for him to get free. He could just come up for a gasp of air. If he hadn't had done that, I would never have known he was there.
"The current was steadily pushing him into the brush pile. That's why he had a death grip to hang on," Hays said. "I'm not taking no credit. I was just doing a family friend a real big favor. I don't know how much longer that he could hold on. I recognized that it was a serious situation and I'm just glad I could be the one to help him out."
More than two dozen others were looking for Tom; most from this close knit community located between Henry Horton State Park and Verona, and also between Milltown and Laws Hill. Firefighters from Berlin and Farmington-Rich Creek searched, as did Sheriff's Deputy Doug McBay, Chief Deputy Billy Lamb, and Detectives Bart Fagan, Bob Johnson and Keith Jolley.
Carol Wiggins called the Sheriff's Department at 7:39 a.m. Monday, according to the dispatcher's log. The search was called off at 9:20 a.m.
"I don't know how long the man was there," Hays continued in a telephone interview on Tuesday evening. "In that situation, seconds feel like hours. I don't see how he held on as long as he did."
It's estimated that Tom was in the water for eight to 10 hours, maybe more, but nobody really knows.
So, what was it like spending the night in the creek? "It was cold," Tom replied Wednesday.
Did he have any doubt that he'd be found? "I knew somebody would be looking," he said.
Tom lives alone in the house where he was born at Anes Station. His bed was checked. It had not been slept in Sunday night.
"When I got to him and got his head above water and told him I had him," Hays said, "he didn't know me at first, but once he heard, he was very coherent and he asked how I knew where he was.
"I told him that he's 'a hard working-man who goes to work every day,' and that when he didn't go to work that morning, everybody knew something was wrong."
Sally "BeBe" Richardson, Hays' grandmother told Hays, "I'm proud of you."
Tom and Sally grew up next-door and "He's just always been a dear family friend," BeBe said. Her grandson's name, Hays, is her maiden name.
"Tom was always at the barn at milking time at 5 a.m." she said, substantiating Hays' explanation to Tom. "I guess it was about 7 a.m. when they became alarmed... figured something was wrong and they found his car at Sheep Neck."
Two creeks flow together to form Cheeks Creek. It flows into the Duck River. Before the creeks merge, they flow around land that's almost surrounded and where they're closest is the place called Sheep Neck.
George Scott saw Tom's black, 1993 Cadillac there late Sunday night, or early Monday morning.
"I was out prowling," George said. "I couldn't sleep."
Tom wears a camouflage ball cap from 1st State Bank of Chapel Hill. Gilbert Hunter said Hays found the hat during the search. The Marshall County Emergency Management Agency's boat was called to the scene.
Bebe's son, Jim Richardson, Hays' father, went to Tom's brother, Gilbert, partner in the Hunter Brothers Dairy Farm, asking if he could finish up milking for Tom.
Michelle Crutcher, an employee at Rock Creek Market, and her husband, Michael, also went to Hunter Brothers Dairy to help finish milking.
Meanwhile, Jim called Hays.
"My son grew up knowing Tom," Jim said. "He was a nervous wreck. Even though there's no blood kin, we're definitely close.
"Tom was out for suckers. I think he caught a good mess, but he lost them all.
"I wasn't surprised that Hays would find him. Hays knew he had to be in the water, so he got his kayak and got in the water."
Gilbert said Tom and Wayne Jones used to fish for the suckers as they swam to lay their eggs, but he said, "Wayne may be too smart to go in the swift water when he's in his 70s....
"Hays found him in Big Rock Creek upstream from Cheeks Creek. Tom can't remember a lot about it," Gilbert said.
"I wasn't expecting to find him in the shape I did," Hays said. "I was preparing myself for the worst. I thought he'd gone into hypothermia," Hays said. "So I got him to shore. I took his wet shirt off and talked to him, and I was hollering at the top of my lungs to the point where I did pretty much lose my voice. I couldn't holler no more."
Jolley and Fagan heard Hays and radioed for the rescue boat. Tom said he didn't need a boat, but was taken in one anyway as Hays paddled his kayak back up stream.
Tom was rushed to Maury Regional Medical Center. He'd suffered a large bruise on his right forearm, scuffed up legs and a scraped right index finger, but there were no broken bones.
"I don't know how the paramedics got him to the hospital," or even in the ambulance, said 11-year-old Colton Hunter. "He wouldn't hardly go."
"We're just thankful that he was found alive and well," BeBe said.
Ruth Wiggins, Tom's first cousin, said he spent Monday night with her since she's cared for him "like a sister the few times he's been sick... He reluctantly agreed to stay. I cooked him supper. He told me he'd be up before 5 to go milking. I checked on him at 3:48. He was resting, asleep."
Ruth checked him again, but dozed off in those predawn hours, she said. "Tom awoke before the alarm. He was already gone. You know, he doesn't need an alarm to get up."
During his interview Wednesday, friends and relatives interjected some observations about the quiet fisherman and dairy farmer who'd had a brush with the beyond.
"Now," says George, "he acts like he's 10 years younger. He's walking faster, but he's the same old Tom."
"I appreciate everybody's help," Tom said in his few soft words.
Tom was taken to Williamson Medical Center at about 2 p.m. on Wednesday suffering black out spells, according to Jim Richardson who said, "That may have been what caused him to fall in the creek. I'm sure they're doing all kinds of tests on him."
William T. "Tom" Hunter was on the third floor of the hospital in Franklin where a staffer confirmed Tom was being tested for whatever caused his black out spells.
"He is feeling OK and he's had tests conducted today and they're awaiting results," hospital spokeswoman Alicia Moorehead said Thursday afternoon, relaying Tom's assessment of his condition.