BILLS: The Stones River hits the Cumberland River, so when they let go of Percy Priest and they let go of Old Hickory, it was like a wall of water. So that’s when the front of the house and everything started to flood. So what we think happened is that the water came rushing in and it picked up my car and slammed it up against the front of the garage, which there was a gas heater that was there. The man who owned the house before was a tinkerer so he had that there, I never really used it. But it snapped we think the gas pipe and then it filled the garage full of gas and as the water came up, we think it hit a electrical outlet. We, Billy and I, were in the house when the garage blew up and it was a humongous “Bam!”. And I mean, the garage door looked like it was origami and blew completely off out into the water in the front of the house.
We then took three fire extinguishers and went running into the home. Now remember it’s a log home. It’s also treated with a petroleum product called creosol. So once something gets on fire, it’s going to go fast. So we run into the water, the water could have been electrically hot, we didn’t know that but we were still trying to save the house. We went through three fire extinguishers and it is very difficult to see the difference between the smoke and the powder that comes out of the fire extinguishers. We didn’t do much, we stalled it for maybe ten minutes, maybe at the most, not even that. Everything kind of went into slow motion.
So we come running back inside and we call 9-1-1. And they’re like, “We can’t get to you. We can’t get to you. Do not get into the water because of the current, you’ll drown. Get blankets, put them in the water, put them over you so when the house blows up you won’t burn to death.”
And that’s when we’re going, “Burn? Drown? Burn? Drown?” Well, the chances of you getting blown off the front porch and into the water anyway, you know, you might as well jump in.
So we were about ready to do that when we looked up and here was a gentleman on a jet ski. And I had never met him before, neither had Billy. And I was like, “Sir, sir, sir, please look into the garage! Please look into the garage and see how bad that fire is.”
And the smoke’s starting to barrel out and he looked in and he said, “We’ve got to get the hell out of here now.”
So he gets on the jetski. He probably weighs about 225 or whatever. I get on the jetski behind him, at that point I was like about 170, and then Billy jumps on, and you’re about, what, 125, and then we’ve got two dogs, you know. And so we’re, this jet ski’s trying to flip over and everything else, he’s tries to start it once, twice, he starts it the third time, we go put put, put, put, put, put, put. We get about 20 yards out or so and ka-boom! The whole house blew up.
And we could feel the heat of the explosion and then the big back draft of the sucking of that oxygen that went back to feed the fire.
Excerpted from: Scott Atkinson, Lesli Bills, and Billy Heldenberg Oral History Interview. Born-digital recording converted to mp3 format for online access in 2012 from 16bit/44.1khz WAV file archival master recording.