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With sleet spitting in his face, James Bolling spent 3½ hours moving icebergs from beneath the bridge — the same bridge his backhoe was sitting on as he piece-by-piece broke an ice jam on the Elkhorn River.
But knowing the icebergs could lift the bridge at any time and throw him and the others into the river wasn’t the scariest part of the night for the Clearwater man. Much worse was earlier having to rescue his friend who was standing on the roof of an F-350 with the river rushing through its windows and icebergs bouncing off the side panels.
“That was the probably the worst part,” Bolling said. “I knew I had to get Spud (Jason Jacob) off the top of the pickup. With ice hitting the truck and water rushing through the driver’s window, that was the most hair raising part of it all.”
Jacob runs Spud Trucking from property next to the Elkhorn River between Neligh and Clearwater. Between the rain and snowmelt, the Elkhorn River rose quickly Wednesday. The Cedar Creek had flooded Oakdale earlier in the day and water was over the highway in various places throughout Antelope County.
Wanting to keep his equipment safe for the night, Jacob moved his backhoe, payloader and other equipment to higher ground next to the highway and close to the bridge.He checked the river at 9 p.m. before heading home.
At 9:27 his phone rang. Employee Kasey Dye called to say he needed to move the backhoe to the bridge because the river was jammed and water was flowing across the highway.
“In 27 minutes, the river went from being high to an emergency,” Jacob recalled. “The water was flowing over the highway and ice was jammed under the bridge.”
Jacob called Bolling, who has worked for Jacob since winter 2014, to come help as well. Dye had started moving giant chunks of ice by the time Bolling arrived. As Bolling jumped into the payloader, Jacob hopped into Bolling’s pickup and started driving toward a building with the hope of shutting down the power.
But the Elkhorn River had other ideas. The water was fast, deep and full of ice.
“At first I didn’t think it was that serious, but then the icebergs started banging the sides of JJ’s pickup. The force was incredible, but I thought I could make it to the shop,” Jacob said. “The pickup started floating away and water was coming through the window of the cab. I had to crawl out and get on the roof. JJ came over with the payloader, and I jumped into the bucket.”
Bolling saw everything. As he was getting into the payloader to help Dye on the bridge, his red Ford kept creeping further and further into the water.
“When I saw the taillights disappear, I knew he was in trouble,” Bolling said. “The water was going in one window and out the other. Everything escalated very quickly. I’m just glad I could get there and get him out of there. Rescuing him was more nerve-wracking than being on the bridge moving ice.
Saving The Bridge & Town
Neither Bolling nor Jacob had much time to grasp what had just happened — Bolling was needed in the backhoe. Not only did the bridge depend on it, but the community of Oakdale did, too.
Antelope County Road Superintendent Casey Dittrich said the Elkhorn River was pushing south toward the Ag Agronomy Center, which had already moved fertilizer tanks because the Cedar Creek was out of its banks, higher than any Oakdale residents had ever seen it. If the Elkhorn would have merged with the Cedar Creek, Dittrich said Oakdale would have been helpless.
“I am certain (Bolling) saved the bridge. I’m certain he saved Oakdale, certain he saved Highway 275,” Dittrich said. “He worked that backhoe with rain coming in facing the west. He was in a hoodie and no gloves, so he could use the controls. He was soaked to the bone, but he did it for 3½ hours.”
While Jacob said he’s not an engineer, he imagines the ice could have lifted up the bridge much like what happened along the Niobrara River as it floated the Mormon Canal Bridge down the river.
“That bridge is a lifeline for Antelope County, and we couldn’t lose that bridge,” Jacob said.
Bolling spent hours throwing ice and logs out of the Elkhorn River while others pushed them into the other side of the bridge. Piece by piece, Bolling lifted chunks of ice out of the Elkhorn and onto the bridge.
“It seemed like I was making no progress. It took forever to move the ice,” Bolling said. “The heater didn’t work, and it was cold. But I honestly didn’t notice until I was done. I was just running on adrenaline.”
Dittrich said Bolling worked like an animal, feverishly breaking icebergs and moving chunks of ice until the water could flow through beneath the bridge.
‘Just What We Do’
Bolling said he never thought twice about climbing into the backhoe even after Jacob’s incident, and Jacob stayed beside his friend helping to save the bridge throughout the night.
“It’s just what we do in Antelope County. We don’t know any other way,” Jacob said.
Jacob has strong ties to the county. His father, Eli, is one of five county commissioners. Since Wednesday, Jacob and Bolling — and countless others — have dedicated themselves to helping the county from more bridge work to now road repair.
Dittrich said he can’t put into words what Bolling and Jacob did that night for Antelope County. Their selflessness, he said, impacted thousands of people who likely don’t even know — until now — what transpired on the Highway 275 bridge Wednesday night.
“Those guys risked their lives that night,” said Antelope County Road Superintendent Casey Dittrich. “What those guys did to save Oakdale was amazing. He saved Spud (Jacob) and then the town.”