West Virginia family copes with losing daughter in floods
John Raby/AP File Photo Carter Phillips and his mother, Becky Carter Phillips, stand at a remembrance wall for Mykala Phillips at the family's home in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va. The wall is in honor of Mykala, who was swept away by floodwaters on June 23. Her body was found weeks later.
WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. — On a perfect summer day, James Phillips hopped on his motorcycle with his 14-year-old daughter and took off through the West Virginia mountains. He and Mykala roared through three tanks of gas in 11 hours and came home exhilarated.
"She made me promise that every day I'd take her to school and come get her on my bike," he recalled. "And I promised."
The next day, his daughter was gone. As floodwaters ravaged their neighborhood, destroying their house and everything inside it, Mykala slipped from the grasp of her 15-year-old brother, and was swept away.
Mykala's body was the last to be found among 23 victims of what the National Weather Service described as a 1,000-year flood in West Virginia. The grim discovery was made seven weeks after the deluge, under a pile of debris about six miles down Howard's Creek, which normally meanders past the old Phillips home.
As their horror turns to enduring grief, the people who loved her are struggling to carry on.
James has thrown his energy into helping his family get a fresh start in a nearby rental home. His wife Becky, the main breadwinner, bears down on her housekeeping job at the Greenbrier resort.
Seven-year-old Carter, only vaguely aware of the weight of the tragedy, plays video games.
And Jason, whose hands were the last to touch Mykala's, immerses himself in his Junior ROTC Club at Greenbrier East High School, and spends time with his girlfriend. The quiet sophomore talks to visitors with "yes sir, no sir" efficiency, yet his military posture fails to hide his pain.
"My baby sister," Jason said, his eyes watering. "I just wonder why her and not me. She could have done great things in life."
He said he picked on Mykala, as any big brother would. After all, she had her own bedroom, and Jason had to share one with their brother. They had good times, too, "doing stuff we shouldn't have been doing," such as a certain incident involving friends, cousins, gunpowder and shotgun shells.
Jason's parents say he's doing better, and that they've reassured him that "nobody is to blame for anything."
But feelings of guilt still haunt him.
As the water poured in on June 23, James got his three children out of the house. Because of his chronic bad back, he tied the children together by looping an extension cord around them. Jason gripped his siblings, too. But the water's power snapped the cord, and Mykala disappeared into the raging torrent.
That moment eats away at the oldest brother. "I see it every time I close my eyes," Jason said.
Neither Carter nor Mykala could swim.
"I had her on top of the water," James said. "We went under. When we came back up, I couldn't hold her and Carter above."
Carter and his sister were close, too. He refers to her as "my backup mommy."
He said he'd like to invent a time machine, set to one day before the flood, "and warn everybody about it." He got the idea from a TV show.
He doesn't hesitate when asked what he misses: "Everything, including the arguing," he said, between playing Minecraft and going outside to play in the rain.
Becky was at work when the floods hit, and she's back at it, finishing up a six-day stretch and getting home in time for the dinner James cooks. On this day, there's minute steak, sweet peas, shells-and-cheese and garlic biscuits.
Consciously or not, Becky pauses every now and then to look at Mykala on the screen of her cell phone. She says she's often too tired to think about Mykala's death. For her, simply coping "really has to be minute by minute."
Mykala's phone was found after the flood. Her mom wants to see if its contents can be salvaged. She's hoping to see selfie photos with her friends at school.
"I didn't get to be in that part of her world," she said.
James tries to be strong for his family, but he said he cries "24-7."
"I'm the one that's stuck in a loop," he said. "These boys are my rowdy side. My daughter's my heart."
Losing his daughter hurts even more than his physical pain, which is no small thing: his teeth were knocked out in the floods, and he's had no luck finding a dentist who will accept his insurance.
With football season starting, James and Becky find comfort in weighing the chances for their favorite college team, the Tennessee Volunteers.
James recently went to Mykala's gravesite alone, and said he plans to take the boys "as soon as they ask."
He wants to buy the rental home, which is about a quarter-mile from the old one, but only slightly less vulnerable to Greenbrier Valley's overflowing creeks. He needs to come up with $7,000 more for a down payment and is scraping it together any way he can.
Becky said she didn't want to move too far, or have to put her sons in new schools.
"I don't want my boys to be uprooted more than they already have been," she said. "Something has to be the same. That something is school."
Nearly all the family's possessions were destroyed. A remembrance wall at the new house includes Mykala's necklace and some Mickey Mouse stuffed dolls, retrieved from the old house and disinfected.
And that motorcycle? It was found a few houses down from the old one. James said he probably can't salvage it. It sits in the backyard, reminding him of that golden summer ride.
"It's the best memory of my life right now," he said. "We had a great day."