A Strange Fall on Buffalo Bayou

Stuck Truck Gives Up

Oct. 23, 2023

It was a beautiful, clear morning on Buffalo Bayou in Houston. We were a little late in the day  to take our fall photo of that Bend in the River. The sun had risen faster than we had and was smiling down at us high above the treetops when we arrived out our spot, the same high bank in Memorial Park from which we have been documenting the changes in the river throughout the seasons for the last nine years.

Looking downstream on a beautiful fall morning from that same high bank in Memorial Park. Photo by SC, Oct. 16, 2023

The tangled woods seemed unusually bare and transparent as we made our way down the winding, sandy path from the Picnic Loop south of Memorial Drive. Remnant piles and pieces of cement drainage pipes and blocks from the World War I Camp Logan were more visible than ever. Even more visible were the rotting logs pecked and hammered by a variety of critters seeking insect sustenance.

A rotting log smorgasbord for critters in the woods. Photo Oct. 16, 2023 by SC

Perfectly natural rotting and pecking but it still somehow reeked of desperation after months of drought and record heat. However this morning was cool enough for us to be concerned about whether we were properly dressed. Weirdly discordant amongst the nearly leafless cherry laurel was the abundance of plump purple American Beautyberries. Why were they not being eaten by birds and other creatures? An ancient medicinal plant, also long used as a mosquito repellent, the berries have a peppery, somewhat bitter taste.

American Beautyberries in the woods of Buffalo Bayou, an ancient source of medicine and food. Photo Oct. 16, 2023

Nature’s Construction

We managed to get a shot of the bend through the ever-changing greenery, despite the high sun beaming and poking at the camera. For some reason, as we looked around, we were newly struck by nature’s engineering: the crisscross beams of long, sturdy roots installed along the high bank and across the path leading like stair-steps down to the nearby creek. All of which holds the bank together.

We then headed upstream along the winding path towards the distant spot where contractors with Harris County Flood Control were attempting to pull a pickup full of mud out of the bayou. Munching on beautyberries, we encountered numerous hikers and runners, as well as their happy dogs, and passed through lovely bowers of fresh sunlit greenery. However, one couple recounted how in early December they had witnessed the sad scene of the family gathered on the bank as the Houston Police recovered the body of the young driver.

The lovely trail through the riparian woods along Buffalo Bayou in Memorial Park. Photo Oct. 16, 2023

Eventually we could hear the grinding of machinery digging, dragging, and chomping on the truck, a white Dodge Ram pickup that had been in the water for almost a year, visible from the  Aqua Trail in the park. The body of 29-year-old Alejandro Torres, who’d been missing since Nov. 27 when he was last seen at a bar on Washington Ave., was discovered downstream almost a week later.

A commercial diver with Saltwater Salvage tests rope attached to white Dodge truck Oct. 16, 2023.

Official speculation is that Torres tragically drove down the road and into the bayou along the CenterPoint power line easement from the Memorial Park Running Center, since there is virtually no other way for a truck to get through the woods. The truck was discovered just downstream from there. In addition, Torres apparently worked for North Houston Pole Line, based on a safety vest recovered from the truck by Saltwater Salvage, the marine salvage company hired by Flood Control. However, a representative of North Houston Pole Line, which works on transmission lines, among other services, said the company would neither confirm nor deny that Torres was an employee.

The marine salvage company, employing several young commercial divers, had been working for three days to pull the heavy truck out of the water. The work had been delayed for months as various public and private entities (insurance company) discussed who was responsible for removing the vehicle. But ultimately the Flood Control District is responsible by law for removing “obstructions, natural or artificial, from streams and water courses,” according to its enabling charter. (Sect. 2, Paragraph E.) The district then had to coordinate with the Army Corps of Engineers to request temporary closure of the federal dams upstream to reduce the flow in the bayou and with the park in order to get access through the narrow trails in the woods while causing as little damage as possible, according to representatives of Flood Control. And hope for no rain.

Truck Uncooperative

But the truck didn’t want to come out. Filled with mud and sand, including even in the tires, according to one of the workers, the big truck also had to be hauled over downed tree trunks in the channel, among other obstacles, including sand bars and thick stands of sturdy ragweed. The slippery bank was steep. But finally it gave up, with the crew cutting it into pieces and dragging them away.

Here is a five-minute video of their efforts to haul the truck out of the water.

Though there had been discussion about the possibility of a helicopter lifting the truck out of the water, it would have been a “super heavy airlift,” said Roger Lackey, owner of Saltwater Salvage, as he sat in a skid steer loader on the bayou bank. Lackey’s company, founded by his grandfather, has pulled a number of vehicles out of the city’s bayous. The truck, he pointed out, was “packed full of sand.”