First published in USA TODAY, Sept. 2, 2017
volunteer useS military truck to rescue hundreds
HOUSTON — The stranger drove down Braesheather Drive in a military vehicle taller than Staci Beinart’s one-story house. He stopped at the curb, killed the engine, and climbed down from the cab, which sits five feet in the air.
Beinart gasped for breath. She took two steps forward, smiled and wrapped the man in a hug. Then she introduced the stranger to her mother.
“Mom! This is the man who rescued us!” said Beinart, 40, before turning back to the man. “I’m sorry. What is your name?”
His name is Nick Sissa. And on Friday afternoon he was the returning hero of Meyerland, a neighborhood west of downtown Houston that experienced severe flooding due to Hurricane Harvey.
For two days this week, through blinding rain that threatened his own livelihood, Sissa drove his two-and-a-half ton military vehicle through the flooded streets of Houston. He rescued about 300 people, he said.
In the grand scheme of things, Sissa’s efforts may account for little. Harvey — one of the largest storms ever to hit North America — flooded about 300 miles of the Houston metropolitan area, the nation’s fourth largest city, forcing tens of thousands of people to evacuate their homes. Thousands more participated in rescue efforts. Rebuilding the city will take years.
To the people of Meyerland, however, Sissa’s big truck left a big impression.
“Oh my gosh. You saved my family! My grandchildren!” said Lisa Davidoff, 62, Beinart’s mother. “I am in debt to you.”
This truck is no joke
When Sissa called his wife Martha Mae last year to say he’d purchased an enormous military vehicle, she didn’t believe him. She was pregnant with their first child. Surely now was not the time to purchase such a big toy.
“I didn’t think he’d actually do it,” said Martha Mae Sissa, 34. “I thought he was kidding.”
Nick Sissa is not a frivolous man. He has a serious job, managing hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of construction contracts at a chemical factory currently being built east of Houston.
He bought the truck at a military auction for $6,000. In a state famous for its love of trucks, Sissa now owned the biggest truck in town. The truck even has local bragging rights — it was manufactured by the Stewart & Stevenson company in nearby Sealy, Texas.
But Sissa didn’t buy the truck to show off. In fact, he barely drove it. Instead he parked it in front of his house in Houston’s Third Ward. He kept the tires inflated and the tank nearly full, ready.
“My mother-in-law hated this thing. Hated it!” said Sissa, 34, a native of Birmingham, Ala. “I just knew we’d need it for something.”
A man finds his calling
That something was Harvey. The hurricane flooded a rental house Sissa owns, and it came within inches of flooding the house where he lives. It shut down the construction project where he works, leaving his employment in limbo.
“My company goes project to project,” he said. “If your project stops, you don’t have a job.”
Some people would sit in their almost-flooded house and worry about these things. Sissa filled the tank of his truck with 55 gallons of diesel. He left home Friday afternoon looking for people to save.
“The funny thing is that when he left, he didn’t know where he was going to go,” Martha Mae said. “He didn’t actually come home that night. All I got was a text that he was working with the fire department.”
One of the first families Sissa found had a pre-teen daughter with serious medical problems whose feeding tube had come loose in the hurricane. The family was standing outside in the rain a few blocks away from a hospital, but they couldn’t reach the emergency room because the hurricane had turned the nearby Buffalo Bayou into a raging river.
Sissa scooped up the family in his truck and drove them to the hospital’s front door. Later he rescued two firefighters whose fire truck was stranded by water. He also rescued dozens of people from Westbury United Methodist Church in Meyerland. They had gone there seeking safety, only to watch the water creep inside the church walls. Sissa picked them up and drove them to a nearby Kroger’s grocery store, where buses transported them to shelters.
In some parts of Meyerland the water ripped through in torrents. Staci Beinart tried to escape her ranch home and walk with her family to a neighbor’s house with a second floor.
“We were chest-high in the water, and the current was so bad I thought we were going to drown,” Beinart said. “We had to turn around.”
Sissa’s truck can submerge into water up to nine feet, he said. Through the deepest water, he always felt the tires planted firmly on the ground.
“This thing is so heavy, I never felt it move,” he said.
Before the storm, Sissa owned the truck for a year without giving it a nickname. During Harvey, however, police officers and national guardsmen assigned a radio call sign to every vehicle allowed to roam the streets.
“The officer in charge of Meyerland named the truck ’Bama 1,'” said Sissa, after his Alabama roots. “I was kind of proud of that.”
After a few days, Sissa found his rescue work replaced by the National Guard. So he drove home to the Third Ward and tended to his family. On Friday he drove back to Meyerland for the first time since the water receded.
Again the truck’s height came in handy. It was the only vehicle in the neighborhood tall enough to allow its driver to see over the piles of waterlogged carpet, furniture and drywall rising on the curbs.
The truck also is so unique that Beinart recognized it immediately. When Sissa stopped the first time to rescue her family, she never thought to ask the stranger his name.
“You are so nice! And so handsome! I need a photo with you,” Davidoff said. “I’m going to friend you on Facebook.”