DEL VALLE, Texas (KXAN) — Clydell Willis does not consider himself a hero. He never wanted any recognition. In fact, he has kept quiet about his experience.
Oct. 30, 2015. It was a day many Central Texans remember. Historic flooding turned neighborhoods into lakes and left families stranded on their roofs.
“For a long time I couldn’t talk about it without tearing up or breaking down because it was an emotional time,” said Willis.
Ten months later, Willis let KXAN education reporter Erin Cargile tag along to revisit the place where the memories start flooding back.
They boarded a bright yellow school bus parked at the Del Valle Independent School District’s Transportation Department.
“This is the bus,” said Willis. “The famous bus of that day.”
Willis is a supervisor and no longer drives a regular route, but on that day, several Del Valle bus drivers were stranded at their homes and couldn’t get to work. So, Willis did what he used to do for years. He got behind the wheel and hit the road getting children safely to school that morning in the pouring rain. Willis dropped all of the students off before 8 a.m., and then got word of a tornado on the ground in Kyle.
As the driving conditions worsen he decided to pull over on the nearest road, which happened to be the Thoroughbred Farms neighborhood.
On Tuesday, in the rain, he drove the bus to the exact spot where he parked that day.
“Under this tree limb. Right here at this family’s house.” He sat in the bus watching the water rise up to the step. “I’m thinking to myself, oh God, oh God, what am I going to do? What am I going to do? I didn’t know these people.”
About that time, Evette Miles opened her front door and motioned him to come in.
Just like that day, when Willis pulled up to her house in his yellow school bus, she came outside to greet him. The two had not seen each other since the flooding and shared a warm hug.
“It’s nice to see him… it just did bring a lot of the memories back,” said Miles.
Not only memories about the flood. Minutes after Willis ended up in front of her home that October day, Miles told him she had just lost her husband the night before.
“If [Clydell] wouldn’t have been there what would we have done?” said Miles.
There was no time for introductions in the chaos. Water started rising in Miles’ home. While she and Willis started coming up with a plan to get to higher ground, a wall of water wiped out the living room wall.
They did not realize at the time the Onion Creek dam had failed.
Willis thought about his school bus sitting outside the house. He and Miles, along with the family, waded in waist deep water across the front yard and climbed into the bus.
“He was the biggest blessing we could have had,” said Miles. “He was awesome.”
Willis knew other neighbors needed help, too. He and Miles’ son went door-to-door and eventually filled up the school bus with nearly a dozen people and drove them to higher ground.
He couldn’t stand the thought of leaving anyone behind, so Willis emptied the bus and went back to rescue more.
“I just felt like what would I do if my mom, or my son, or my daughter was out there?” said Willis, who also served in the Navy. He credits his military training for his ability to stepping into action under pressure. “Also it came from just growing up in the country, you know, we’re always taught everybody is one family.”
Oftentimes experiences can make no sense when you’re going through them, but once the storm has passed it’s all clear.
“A lot of people know I’m a God-fearing man, and I know everything happens for a reason. And something drew me to that house.”
What Willis didn’t know was his boss nominated him for an award through the Texas Association for Pupil Transportation.
At their annual conference in June he was presented with the Sure Lock Above and Beyond Award.
“He deserves it, and I hope I get a picture of that,” said Miles who turned to Willis. “Mail it to me.”