EXCLUSIVE: Worker who couldn't save driver from floodwaters: 'I just could not get to her'

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Claudia Melgar drowned after she drove into high water at the underpass of Westpark Tollway near Post Oak.

Monday's flooding was a day of both heroics and tragedy, and on the Westpark Tollway, the two met.

"I knew the person was in there and alive. All I kept thinking was if I could just make it there maybe I could get the door open," said Bill Smiers, a member of the Harris County Toll Road Authority's Incident Response Team.

Smiers was sitting in his truck early Monday morning blocking off the Post Oak Exit on the Westpark Tollway. It is a deep underpass that often fills with floodwater.

At 6:09am, roadway camera video shows an SUV squeeze by his truck. Video released Wednesday shows the vehicle drive into the water and immediately starts floating. The video also shows the driver, now identified as Claudia Melgar, using the light from her cell to signal for help.

"The deeper she got, the more frantically she was waving it," Smiers told Eyewitness News in an exclusive interview.

Smiers, a military veteran who has worked the toll road for 10 years, made two attempts to swim to the SUV even as the pumps underneath were sucking him down. He got within about 12 feet but had to turn back.

"At that point, I've got three boys of my own and a family and i have to see what I can do to save myself," Smiers said.

He met with the Melgar family Wednesday, offered his condolences and apologized he couldn't do more.

"I just could not get to her," he said.

Melgar was a college student from the Alief area.

PHOTOS: Flooding across southeast Texas
Seven other potential flood-related deaths in the Houston area were reported. Five of those were in Harris County.

Melgar is just one of eight people who have died from flooding in the Houston area.

Teri Rodriguez, 41, was found dead Tuesday in a completely submerged vehicle in a ditch along Briarcreek Boulevard in north Harris County. Her family says Rodriguez was driving home from her sister's house around 3am when she drove down a flooded roadway.
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As the floodwater begins to recede, crews are on the lookout for drivers who may have been overwhelmed by the high water and drowned.

A man and woman were found inside two separate vehicles in the 3600 block of the West Loop South. One of those victims was identified as Sunita Singh, and the other was 36-year-old Suresh Talluri. He lived in Cinco Ranch with his wife and two children.

The driver of an 18-wheeler, 61-year-old Pedro Rascon Morales, was found inside a cab submerged under water in the 800 block of the North Sam Houston East Parkway.

Then there was 66-year-old German Antonio Franco. He was found unresponsive in a flooded vehicle in the 17400 block of Imperial Valley Drive. His daughter tells Eyewitness News he was a retired HEB produce manager who was working part time as a contracted limousine driver for the city of Houston. He was the job Monday morning, says Annamaria Franco, who described him as a beloved father and husband of 43 years. He had three children and four grandchildren.

In Waller County, Royal ISD teacher Charles Odum, 56, was found in a vehicle submerged under water, and in Austin County, a woman also reportedly drowned when she drove into high water.
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Teacher killed in Waller Co. flooding, Kaitlin McCulley reports.

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