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Howard County Times
Howard County

Girlfriend of Ellicott City flood victim while plunging into Patapsco River: 'We're going to die'

Ashley Jennings and Henri Sanders had helped customers at the Phoenix Emporium get up to the second floor as the floodwaters began rushing into the bar and restaurant on Ellicott City's Main Street on Saturday night. They started walking uphill, to see if friends who lived on higher ground could take in their stranded customers.

"We were in hip-high water, and we saw her coming out of the darkness," Jennings, 29, said. "She was bleeding and white as a ghost."

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Heather Owens' car had floated down Main, struck a guardrail and crashed into the raging Patapsco River. She got out through the passenger window, grabbed the branch of a tree on the rocky bank. She looked back, and saw her boyfriend Joe Blevins, in the river, gasping for air and reaching for something to grab as well.

"It was so quick," Owens, 32, said. "It was like being in the middle of the ocean."

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The rushing waters ripped her shoes and pants off, and she started screaming Joe's name over and over again. Owens decided to go for help, climbing barefoot up the bank onto nearby railroad tracks, eventually encountering Jennings and Sanders.

Joseph Anthony Blevins was dubbed "Papa Joe" by a colleague due to his fatherly presence in the office.

"Can you go help find my boyfriend?" Sanders remembers her asking. They took her to their friends' house, and returned to the river, shining a flashlight and calling out for Blevins.

His body would not be found until Sunday morning, downriver about two miles away. Blevins, 38, who directed the University of Baltimore financial aid office, and Jessica Watsula, 35, of Lebanon, Pa., whose body was also found on Sunday, were killed in the flooding that has devastated a tight-knit Main Street community.

"Joe was a regular," said Sanders, 33, a DJ at Phoenix Emporium, although he didn't know Blevins personally. "I thought maybe he got out of the river. We hoped he got a branch. When we found out the next day, it was heartbreaking."

On Wednesday, Owens was scheduled for surgery to wire her jaw, which was fractured at some point during the ordeal. Then, she'll travel to the Winchester, Va., area, where Blevins is from and where a funeral will be held in several days.

The past few days have been a blur, she said. At times she's fallen apart and at others she is determined to keep her partner's memory alive.

"I feel like people should know his story," said Owens, who previously worked with Blevins at UB but recently moved to a job at Towson University's student accounts office.

They met about 10 years ago, when they both worked at the University of Maryland University College and played on a softball team together, Owens said. Blevins was devoted to his three children, who range in age from 5 to almost 17, she said.

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On Saturday afternoon, the two of them had gone to see "Star Trek Beyond" at a movie theater in Laurel, where they like the reclining seats. Before heading home to Windsor Mill, they decided to stop in Ellicott City, where they enjoyed walking around Old Town.

They got there around 7:30, just as the worst of the rain hit, she said. They parked in a lot and sat in the car, thinking they would wait out the storm. But soon, they saw the water rising, and thought, "maybe we should get out of here," Owens said.

They drove back on Main Street, and within five minutes, their car started floating, she said. Helpless and horrified, their car struck a guard rail and tumbled into the swollen Patapsco.

"I was freaking out, and he was calm," Owens said.

"We're going to die, we're going to die," she remembers saying. But, she also thought, "We have to put the windows down."

She remembers the rain being cold but the river water warm. Barefoot, she climbed up the rocky bank and toward higher ground.

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"I haven't watched much" coverage, she said. "But people are shocked I was able to get out."

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Jennings, a bartender at the Emporium, and her boyfriend, Sanders, said they took Owens to their friends' house, and left her with a cellphone so she could call family.

Jennings and Sanders then returned to the river to look for Blevins.

"There were a bunch of people looking," Jennings said. "It's tough to feel so helpless."

Eventually, first responders arrived and began searching the river as well. Medics arrived at the house, and Owens was taken to Howard County General Hospital, and the next morning to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore.

Her jaw could remain wired for up to eight weeks, a small price to pay compared to Blevins' death, she said.

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"I remember everything," Owens said of Saturday night. "I was conscious the whole time.

"I thought, I cannot let my family get a phone call that I'm dead," she said. "I'm still in shock. I always considered Joe the strong one."


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