Dawn and David's boys and grandma

David and Dawn Blackburn’s boys Noah, left, and Michael pose with grandmother Allie Whitehead, David’s mother. Noah was 2 and Michael 4 when David saved their mom during a 2007 flash flood in La Crescent Township before being swept away himself and drowning.

Thunderstorms rattle Dawn Richards so much that she can’t even drive in the rain because such weather takes her back to the night of Aug. 18, 2007, when her husband sacrificed his own life to save her from the raging waters of a flash flood.

“I love you” were David Blackburn’s last words to his wife before he was swept away in La Crescent Township to become one of seven fatalities in the widespread flash floods that night.

“He’s a hero. He saved my life,” Richards said during a phone interview Friday, her voice breaking at the memory and the perilous images that haunt her to this day.

David, Dawn and friend Terri Peterson were on their way home from dinner out when their pickup caromed off a washed-out bridge on Houston County Road 6. It careened through a ditch into a normally placid, meandering creek that had foamed into an angry torrent.

Peterson managed to grab a tree limb and pull herself to safety. Even though David and Dawn were able to get out of the truck, they were forced to clutch the sides and ride it like a boat, according to news accounts of the day.

David, who was 37, was able to help Dawn reach a tree limb to cling to before he was swept away and out of the reach of rescuers trying to save him.

A La Crescent police officer’s hunting skiff overturned in the current, as did a flat-bottom boat three La Crescent firefighters were using to try to rescue him.

The rapidly rising water enveloped Blackburn, drowning him, then-La Crescent Police Chief Todd Nelson said in an interview on National Public Radio.

“I heard his last screams before he went under water,” Nelson told NPR, adding that eventually, a state game officer maneuvered an air boat to save the two women, the police officer and the firefighters, one by one.

Dawn, who had been married to David for seven years and who had worked with him at Miken Sports in Caledonia, Minn., clung to hope even after the storm subsided.

“I prayed they would find him, and he’d be OK,” she said. “When you don’t get that report, it’s shocking.”

She was left to convey the tragic news to the couple’s sons, then-4-year-old Michael and 2-year-old Noah.

“The look on Michael’s face” was wracked with pain, she said. “He kicked me and said he didn’t believe me. It was the worst experience of my life. I was in a state of shock, because I kept expecting him to come walking in the door.”

Noah, now 13, was too young at the time of the tragedy to remember his dad, but 15-year-old Michael has many fond memories, Dawn said.

To this day, “Michael is very sensitive and emotional about it,” she said.

“I see so much of David in them,” she said, choking up. “It is important for me to let them know how much they are loved.”

Dawn, 45, sadly recalled the irony of the couple’s discussions on their porch when Hurricane Katrina was raking the Gulf Coast with death and destruction in 2005.

“He said, ‘If it ever happened to us, I’d drown to save you.’ Maybe he knew … maybe he knew,” she said.

Dawn later married one of David’s friends, Anthony Richards, with whom she had a daughter in 2009, and they live in Mabel, Minn.

The fact that she now has a daughter also carries a touch of irony, she said, as she and David “always had wanted a girl, and we had two boys.”

The girl’s name is Faith, in part to acknowledge the faith that David had instilled in Dawn.

“He gave me a wonderful opportunity — a second chance,” said Dawn, who spends much of her time carrying for Noah because he has special needs.

“I cherish my children,” she said. “I don’t ever like to leave them, because I don’t want that to happen again.”

As for herself, she said, “I can’t forget it, surrounded by rain, thunder and lightning. Every time it storms, I think of it. I can’t drive in the rain. I still cope with that.

“It’s still there — it’s not something that goes away,” she said.

High on her list of priorities is telling the boys stories about their dad, she said.

“I need to show the children how much he loved them,” she said. “He gave me the second chance at life. I think he would be proud.”

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Mike Tighe is the Tribune newsroom's senior citizen. That said, he don't get no respect from the cub reporters as he goes about his duly-appointed rounds on the health, religion and whatever-else-lands-in-his-inbox beats. Call him at 608-791-8446.

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