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Man drove through flood to save hundreds of exotic pigeons

'I had to get to my birds'
Posted at 4:23 PM, Mar 02, 2018
and last updated 2018-03-02 18:40:32-05

CINCINNATI -- Remember the video of that guy who drove his truck into floodwater last weekend?

We may have all been too quick to judge. 

It turns out, Rick Leimann wasn't just driving through the water for the fun of it. He wasn't shouting "wahoo!" as he took his truck off road. He was desperately trying to save his 300 exotic pigeons from the rising flood. 

"I know in my brains...that I didn't do the right thing," Leimann said. "But in my heart, I did the right thing because I had to get to my birds."

One of Rick Leimann's exotic pigeons

Leimann's pigeons aren't just any old birds. After he took an interest in his neighbor's pigeons as a boy, he said his parents bought him a pair of exotic pigeons as a confirmation gift when he was 13. He's been raising and breeding exotic show pigeons ever since, for 41 years. 

Leimann keeps four breeds of exotic pigeons. He enters them in contests similar to dog and cat shows, but for pigeons. He even judges international shows for one Indian breed he's had particular success with over the years. With another breed, Leimann has worked for 20 years to create a color he said is unique to his pigeons. 

"If the water got in here, I couldn't replace the breed I have. That's why I had to get in here," Leimann said. "Besides, I love them as my kids. They're living animals, and I would sacrifice myself for my animals."

While Leimann enjoys keeping the exotic pigeons as a hobby, he acknowledged it can look like a business, too. Buyers from the Middle East or China are sometimes willing to pay thousands of dollars for a show-winning bird. Leimann said he once sold a Grand National winner for $10,000. 

Leimann was working on another sale Sunday morning as the flood waters rose. He'd been out at his Sayler Park boathouse (he owns a boat service business) checking on things at about 7 a.m. When he left, he estimated there was a foot or so of water on the road. No problem for his Ford F-150 pickup truck with 20 inch tires. 

But Leimann lost track of the time. He ate breakfast while negotiating a pigeon sale. He had picked out some birds for a Chinese buyer while judging a show in Bahrain. Two or three hours went by. The Ohio River was just a few hours away from cresting at its highest point since 1997. When Leimann returned to the boathouse, the water had risen several more feet. 

Leimann was worried about his birds. He wanted to move them upstairs. He didn't realize how much deeper the water had gotten, he said.

"I thought I'd be all right," he said.

At first, briefly, it was all right. But as the water rose higher and higher around the truck, Leimann figured it was already too late to stop. The water was coming over the hood. He pressed the gas in an effort to push through, but then the truck hit a boat trailer that was hidden under the murky water. It blew one of his tires and stopped the truck's forward momentum.

"What made me realize I really messed up here is that, when the truck stopped, I'm bouncing, I'm floating like a piece of Styrofoam," he said. "And water started coming in. I'm looking around the truck like, 'What to do?'"

The truck was dead. Water was pooling around Leimann's feet. He couldn't get the door open. 

"I'm sitting here and I'm looking around and I'm thinking, 'Try to focus. Don't panic,'" he said. 

But the water continued to rise in the truck. Luckily, the window was open. When the water was up to his lap, Leimann took off his shoes (his grandpa taught him they'd weigh him down swimming), put his wallet in his mouth and slipped feet-first out the window. 

Outside, Leimann clung to the door. The 6-foot-3 man was in chest-deep water. He could feel the current pulling the truck toward the harbor. 

"When I came out I thought, 'Man, I'm really in trouble,'" he said.

Leimann tried to pull the truck forward onto the dry land, but it wouldn't budge. Soaking wet and barefoot, he ran for his Bobcat and an anchor rope. He tried to tow the truck with the Bobcat, and was able to pull the truck over the trailer. But a utility pole was in the way. He tied the other end of the rope to his gate and went inside to check on his birds and dry off. 

"It scared me," Leimann said. "I'll never drive through the water again."

After crossing and warming up, Leimann was able to secure his birds and his customers' boats. When the water receded, his truck was still there, but it was totaled. 

As a reminder, Cincinnati police have repeatedly warned to avoid flooded roads. According to the National Weather Service, 6 inches of fast-moving flood water can knock over a full-grown person. A foot of rushing water can carry away a small car, and 2 feet of water can float almost any SUV or pickup truck. 

Leimann said he knew it was a dumb thing to do, but he'd do it again to save his birds.

"I love them like they're my kids."