Herald/JOHN A. BOWERSMITH - A flower, thrown as a memorial to Jesse and Gloria Hornsby, floats down the creek in Copperas Cove where the two were killed May 24, 2007, when their minivan was swept away by floodwaters.

By Jon Schroeder

Killeen Daily Herald

A year ago last week, Big Valley residents already knew they had a problem.

But then it got worse. Much worse.

On May 24, 2007, Jesse Scott Hornsby, 75, and his wife, Gloria Hornsby, 73, were swept off a low-water crossing and killed by floodwaters.

They were coming home to Big Valley that night in their white Dodge Caravan, but as they started to ford the Brinegar low-water crossing through dirty flowing water and debris, their car careened off the road and lodged between two trees about 30 yards down Clear Creek.

The van had flipped more than 180 degrees, crossing the creek in the process. Its front end pointed directly into the raging floodwaters.

At 11 p.m., their son, Scott Hornsby, got a call from Bill French, a childhood friend still living in the area. French told him that his parents were missing. Their empty car had been found on Clear Creek. He rushed from his home in West, about a 90-minute drive.

When he arrived, he saw an empty fire truck at the crossing and flashing lights downstream.

"They'd found Mom."

At 1:30 a.m., the search was called off, the floodwaters still deadly and lighting in short supply. Early the next morning, before firefighters returned, Scott Hornsby set out again to look for his father's body with French and Mike Brown, another Big Valley resident. They found the body of Jesse Hornsby hundreds of yards down the creekbed as the waters began to recede.

Left behind

The Hornsbys were well-liked in their tightknit community, a group of about 26 households (one neighbor noted that she had "only" known the Hornsbys for nine years at the time of their deaths).

Jesse Hornsby, known by many as "Rocketman," was a former Army lieutenant colonel who had a hand in training the first seven American astronauts. He had won awards for his teaching in Texas and was memorialized by a rocket launch at West Ward Elementary School in November. He was proud of his Scottish roots. At the funeral, bagpipes were played, and his children wore Scottish garb.

Gloria Hornsby, a stay-at-home mom, raised five children:

Janet Donagan, Patty Beyea, Debbie Fester, Vicky Makins and Scott Hornsby.

The Hornsbys moved to Big Valley in September 1975; their only child to grow up there was Scott Hornsby, the youngest.

When they died, the Hornsbys left behind not only their children and neighbors but also a difficult situation in their neighborhood.

With each rain, Big Valley residents are cut off from the rest of the world. Two low-water crossings – the Brinegar culvert and the Arrowhead crossing – are the only ways into or out of the area, and with a high percentage of elderly residents living there, the Big Valley few are worried about future tragedies. Emergency vehicles cannot get into or out of the area.

When it rains, "I tend to panic a little," Big Valley resident Kay Brown said. She lives within shouting distance of the spot where the Hornsbys' van came to rest.

Kay Brown and her husband, Mike, were the Hornsbys' best friends in the area.

After the last two years of flooding, two years of their yard turning into a lake 5 feet deep, the only thing left behind the house is a bucking barrel, hooked to three trees. But it floats, unlike the barn high waters took last year. The Browns knew something needed to be done, but they never thought they'd lose their friends to the waters.

Dwight Svoboda, another neighbor, lost two metal-frame buildings to flooding last year. He lives on the other side of the creek and can get in or out without crossing either of the low-water crossings, but flooding has filled his workshop with 3 feet of water. He's concerned about his neighbors on the other side, many of whom he knows.

"It's scary," he said.

Like many in the community, he blames the flooding on construction in Copperas Cove, less than a mile away from the north side of the Big Valley subdivision. Having lived on the side of the creek since 1999, he says the flooding is getting worse each year, although 2007 was the worst so far.

Last year was the year he found one of his wheelbarrows in a tree after a flood.

Drainage from Cove flows into the valley; it's drainage, residents say, because of all the trash that flows with it and sticks in trees along the way. Svoboda has pictures of boxes floating down the creek, and other residents say everything from bottles to a toilet have been dragged down the creek.

Rain in the Big Valley area doesn't necessarily mean flooding. But if it rains to the west, Clark Creek floods. Rain to the north means a flood for Clear Creek.

It matters little to Svoboda; his house is located at the intersection of the two creeks.

But he's not moving, and neither is Hella Donnely.

"We love it here," she said. True to her appreciation for the area, she's even found a silver lining in some dark rain clouds.

"It's even quieter here without the school bus." The bus can no longer pass her house because of the closed Arrowhead crossing.

After the Hornsbys died, residents took their case to the Copperas Cove City Council, but they say their complaints – pictures included – have fallen on deaf ears. They don't live within city limits.

"It's a dollar issue," Kay Brown said.

She, like just about all of her neighbors, said she believes the flooding comes as a result of new construction on the outskirts of Cove, and that the city isn't doing enough to make sure developers ensure proper drainage.

The county, which has limited authority over even unincorporated subdivisions, does not have the power to regulate developers, according to county officials.

For now, at least in regards to Copperas Cove, Brown has only one thing to say: "I think it's wrong. The city's not taking responsibility by making the builders follow stricter rules."

And she's not alone in her belief.

'Forgotten' community

Big Valley residents are more pleased with the county's handling of the situation, although they're frustrated with the seemingly endless delays.

Coryell County officials, particularly Judge John Firth and Commissioners Elizabeth Taylor and Jack Wall, have been aggressively pursuing funding to fix and improve infrastructure damaged by last year's flooding. Firth even became a member of the Office of Rural and Community Affairs committee, which determines where some of that funding goes, after the panel failed to attain a quorum at several consecutive meetings.

The county has received money for what will become the Jesse and Gloria Hornsby Memorial Bridge, an all-weather crossing that will be placed at the Arrowhead site.

At the time of the Hornsbys' deaths, Firth had just become county judge. To date, the Gloria and Jesse Hornsby Memorial Bridge and other county recovery work is the project he's spent the most time on. A white board diagramming the funding possibilities has hung in his office for the last several months, and he's given the same speech explaining the county's funding options hundreds of times.

Coryell County Emergency Management Coordinator Phil Yarbrough helped lead a Community Emergency Response Team for Big Valley residents. Each week, the neighbors met in Charles and Ona Trubee's barn to learn basic lifesaving and triage skills.

"It was like we were magnets, drawn to each other because of the tragedy," Kay Brown said. "We just want everyone to be safe."

But even with all of the county's work, little has changed. State and federal regulations have held up the building process considerably, and the county has been waiting for five months to learn the results of three requests for more money for various projects, including the restoration of the Brinegar culvert, pared down from an original list of 14.

For now, the county's timeline calls for another four months of preliminary work before construction starts on the Arrowhead location. The Brinegar location must wait until that's completed so that residents can still come and go during construction.

The process is working, most Big Valley residents believe.

"But it could work faster," said Svoboda, echoing others who do live in the community.

Tossing daisies

On May 24, Scott Hornsby and Debbie Fester scattered roses and daisies on the water near the Brinegar crossing, memorializing their parents' deaths a year after the fact. They talked on speaker phone to their sister Vicki, describing the scene.

The Hornsbys' son says fixing the bridges is good, albeit "a day late and a dollar short." He's grateful for the kind treatment he and his family received at the funeral.

"We're just very grateful for all of the thoughts and prayers that came out of the Big Valley area," he said. "It made us feel like there was family out in the valley still."

He's not so optimistic about well-wishers at the county level, though.

He said the county hasn't done anything to fix the crossings since 1975, when he moved to Big Valley.

"If it hadn't been for (the deaths of his parents), they still wouldn't care what happens out there."

But that's not the main problem he sees. Jesse and Gloria were convinced, he said, that if the crossings were fixed, the city would immediately annex the area. In the Hornsbys' opinion, that would have been a very bad thing.

So, as it turns out, the memorial bridge "is not actually something they would want."

For the residents of Big Valley, though – including his friend Bill French, who went with him a year ago to look for the bodies and now owns his parents' old house – he wishes only the best.

On May 24, as the pink and yellow flowers were dropped into the 5-inch-deep stream of water under the Brinegar culvert, Scott said a prayer for his parents under a brilliant blue sky.

The rain clouds were gone, but only for the moment.

Contact Jon Schroeder at jons@kdhnews.com or (254) 501-7475.

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