'He laid down his life': Houston police officer among Harvey's victims

Washington Post

Just before he hung up the phone with her, Alicia Contreras could hear her father frantically racing around his store, laying down newspaper and lifting the most valuable timepieces to the highest shelves he could reach.

Her father had spent almost every day, for nearly 30 years, working at Accu-Tyme, the South Houston clock and jewelry repair store he now owned. If Hurricane Harvey's waters were coming for the store, he would be there to protect it.

"Sweetie, I have to call you back!" a frantic Alexander Sung, 64, told his 20-year-old daughter as the waters outside began to rage Saturday evening. He'd call back soon, he promised.

After days of torrential rain and fierce floodwaters, officials across Southeast Texas are just beginning to tally the deadly toll taken by Harvey, which has left 30 percent of Houston underwater and thousands of people displaced. As of Tuesday evening, officials believed that at least 22 people across Texas were dead of storm-related causes, a number expected to rise in the coming days and weeks.

Thirteen of the fatalities were in Harris County, which includes Houston and was among the areas hit hardest by the storm. That count includes Sung, whose body was found at 2:41 p.m. on Sunday, still barricaded inside his flooded clock shop.

Also among the confirmed fatalities was a 52-year-old homeless man in La Marque believed to have drowned in the parking lot of the Walmart he was known to frequent, a 60-year-old who was asleep in her bedroom when an oak tree landed on her mobile home in Porter, and a 30-year veteran of the Houston Police Department who found himself trapped in floodwaters as he made his way into a rescue shift.

The officer, Sgt. Steve Perez, 60, had left home about 4 a.m. on Tuesday - despite his wife's pleas that he stay home - in an attempt to find a passable route to his duty station. His body was recovered shortly after 8 a.m.

"He laid down his life," said Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo, who grew emotional during a brief afternoon news conference. "He was a sweet, gentle public servant."

Officers stood along the chain-link fence outside Perez's home in Porter on Tuesday evening. The neighborhood, like so many others in northeastern Houston, had floodwaters rushing through residential streets.

"He was a true peace officer," said Capt. Kenneth Campbell, Perez's supervising officer in the traffic enforcement division. "He could've retired a long time ago, but he didn't. He loved his job."

Rescue workers and police officials across the state privately lament that the storm probably has claimed many more lives than they have tallied. Soon enough, the dramatic boat rescues playing out live on cable news will give way to recovery missions.

"Unfortunately, when the water goes down and we start going door to door, we're prepared for the number of dead to go up," said Sgt. Tim Cromie of the Dickinson Police Department, which as of Tuesday afternoon had confirmed at least three storm-related deaths in the town of 19,000. "Although, we hope that it won't."

Across the hardest-hit counties, hundreds of people remain unaccounted for. In many of those cases - officials hope the majority of them - residents are listed as missing because power outages and dead cellphones have kept them from checking in with loved ones. But in at least some of those cases, rescue workers know, the missing will soon join the list of victims.

Among the yet-to-be-confirmed deaths are six members of the Saldivar family - Manuel and Belia Saldivar, both in their 80s, teenagers Devy and Dominic, 8-year-old Xavier and 6-year-old Daisy - who were attempting to flee a flash flood when the van they were riding in was submerged in water, according to Ric Saldivar, who is one of the elder Saldivars' sons.

The group had piled into a family van being driven by Sammy Salvidar, 56, one of Ric's brothers, on Saturday night as the nearby Halls Bayou began to flood.

As they approached the bridge at Green River Drive, Sammy saw that it was covered in water. However, according to Ric Saldivar, they kept driving, because the guardrails were still showing.

But the road dipped sharply on the other side of the bridge, he said. Suddenly, the van was floating and taking on water. Sammy Salvidar, the driver, squeezed out of a window and clung to a tree branch. No one else made it out of the van.

"He was yelling at the kids to climb out of the back of the van; I'm sure they couldn't reach it," said Ric Saldivar, relaying the narrative provided to him by Sammy. "He could hear the kids screaming, but couldn't push the doors open. That's what he keeps hearing in his head. And the van just went underwater and was gone."

The Harris County Sheriff's Office confirmed that it rescued Sammy Saldivar from floodwaters on Greens Bayou in East Houston. A sheriff's department spokesman told The Washington Post that deputies could not find the van and that the area was still too flooded for a search-and- rescue mission.

Flooding has prevented many county medical examiners from being able to conduct autopsies on most of the bodies they have recovered so far. As of Tuesday evening, Harris County officials had conducted only one autopsy - that of the clock fixer.

Contreras said her father had worked with clocks for most of his life, learning the trade from his father, a clockmaker, when he was a 13-year-old living in China.

The youngest of five brothers, Sung followed his siblings to the United States in his 20s, then attended college and began working for clock-repair shops in the Houston area. The brothers decided to open Accu-Tyme together, but before long, Sung was its owner and primary employee.

He did enlist his daughters, Contreras and her 19-year-old sister, to help out with shifts at the store when they weren't in school and to join him each Sunday to burn incense at the Taoist temple downtown. Contreras described her father as a funny but quiet man who would listen during family dinner as his daughters recounted the details of their days, teasing that their chatter was "an endless recording that just keeps going and going." If either daughter came to the table quiet, he would quickly inquire why.

"What's wrong?" Contreras recalled him asking with a tease. "You two never stop talking, so I know something must be wrong."

Sung had spent much of Saturday checking in with Contreras, who is a junior at Texas State University, and her sister. The coming storm, he had been warned, could turn deadly. So Sung wanted to know that his girls were safe.

After checking in by text message for most of the day, Contreras finally called her father around midnight, after she finished a double shift at the Austin-area hospital where she works. He was at the shop, insisting he would be all right. He had to go. The waters were rising.

About 20 minutes later, a text message flashed across the screen of her cellphone.

"I love you sweetie," Sung assured his daughter. "You guys are all I have."

He promised he would call soon. The call never came.

As the night stretched on, fresh waves of rain feeding the raging floodwaters, Contreras began to worry. She and her sister sent text messages, and they called the clock shop.

They begged the police, and later their aunts and uncles, to find their father. He had not checked in for hours, and the quiet, they knew, meant something must be wrong.

Selk reported from Houston. Mark Berman, Lindsey Bever and Arelis R. Hernández contributed to this report.

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