By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Doug Hamilton, a 43-year-old Southwestern Bell manager, left work early on a wet, stormy October day in 1994 to attend a conference with his daughter's kindergarten teacher.
When the meeting ended, Hamilton began driving his wife and three young children home to Mesquite, but decided, two blocks from the house, to take a fateful detour.
His wife and children wanted to see the culvert under the Highway 80 service road near Town East Boulevard because they knew that when the city fails to close the floodgates--as it had that day--overflowing rainwater creates a dramatic whirlpool along the road.
"You know how it is," says Hamilton. "Cheap thrills for little kids."
As Hamilton steered his red Chevrolet Astro van toward the edge of the service road, Elisa Moore, a 29-year-old special-education teacher at The Notre Dame of Dallas School, was heading home to her apartment near the freeway. Moore drove her blue 1990 Mustang down the highway ramp--and straight into the flood.
The swirling waters drowned her engine. Then water began streaming into her car, rising first to her waist, then creeping up toward her neck. A rippling wave from a whirlpool spun the Mustang around. Moore didn't know how to swim. "I was terrified," she recalls.
With the engine dead, the panicked teacher could not open her electric door locks or lower her windows. The water continued to rise inside her car. She couldn't muster the strength to punch out the glass. Says Moore: "I had to assume I was going to die."
Then Moore looked out her window and noticed a man with an orange electrical cord tied around his body, swimming in the water and banging on the glass.
It was Doug Hamilton. Spotting Moore's bobbing Mustang, he had sent his wife Janet home to fetch an inner tube and all the electrical cords--he knew he didn't have any rope--that she could carry. When she returned, Hamilton handed one end of a 100-foot cord to a group of men, who had stopped by to see what the floods had wrought. "Whatever you do," Hamilton told them, "don't let go."
Then he waded into the chilly, chest-high waters while debris rushed by him. He yelled for Moore to open her car door, but she couldn't. Then--to this day Hamilton doesn't know exactly how--he pried the door open himself from the outside.
"Please don't let me die," Moore blurted.
"I don't intend to," Hamilton replied.
In the weeks following the rescue, the tale of Hamilton's heroics dominated the water-cooler conversation of his colleagues at the phone company's Dallas offices. When his Southwestern Bell bosses got wind of it, they nominated him for the company's highest honor, the Theodore N. Vail Award, which includes a $5,000 cash prize. The company had only conferred the distinction six times before.
Eager to bask in the glory of its employee's actions, Southwestern Bell even assigned a public-relations specialist to drum up publicity about the rescue. In the ensuing December 30 Dallas Morning News story, featured prominently on the front page of the "Mesquite" section, the Dallas-Fort Worth vice president and general manager for Southwestern Bell, Tom Morgan, sang Hamilton's praises. "He is a hero in every sense of the word," Morgan told the News.
Yet Doug Hamilton never received the Vail award. One of his superiors informed Hamilton in February 1995 that a Southwestern Bell award committee had decided he was "not worthy." Later that month, nearly five months after he had saved Moore's life, the telephone company--this time without publicity--fired him from his $47,000-a-year job.
Hamilton, who had never held another job since graduating from college, had worked for Southwestern Bell for 20 years. His bosses told him he was being dismissed for conduct unbecoming of a manager.
In response to Hamilton's court challenge to his firing, Southwestern Bell cited a single confrontation he had had with a female colleague. In court papers, the company says Hamilton had "verbally and physically accosted a co-worker...in an aggressive and abusive manner."
Hamilton says he and the woman both raised their voices during the "altercation"--which he regrets--and that he merely swatted her finger away after she began poking him in the chest during the exchange.
In a wrongful-termination and employment-discrimination suit he filed last November against Southwestern Bell in U.S. District Court in Dallas, Hamilton alleges that the reasons the company cited for canning him were "pretextual and in no way descriptive of the actual reason for discharge." In court documents, he claims that the actual circumstances of his dismissal violated state and federal law.
His brush with death, Hamilton contends, triggered a case of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which produces irritability, flashbacks, and uncharacteristic impulsiveness. He claims he told his superiors in December 1994 that the condition left him disabled, and that the doctor he'd seen had diagnosed the problem and prescribed medication. Yet the company, he says, refused requests to switch him temporarily into a less stressful, nonmanagement job. Hamilton blames the condition for the incident cited in his dismissal.
In court papers, Southwestern Bell concedes that Hamilton's supervisor knew he was suffering "some problems which he related to the rescue and that he was seeking counseling through his church." The company denies that Hamilton or the doctors advised his bosses he was disabled.