UPDATE: Man identified in drowning death in flood waters

Published: Aug. 21, 2018 at 5:53 AM CDT
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Update 2:47 p.m., Aug. 22:

The Dane County Medical Examiner's Office released the name of the man who died in the flood waters, Aug. 20. James Sewell, 70, of Madison, Wis., died after being swept away in flash flood waters in the area of Piping Rock Road and Chapel Hill Road around 9:07 p.m.

The medical examiner released preliminary results confirmed Sewell's death was the result of accidental drowning. Additional testing is underway at this time.


The man was driving an SUV with two passengers when his vehicle was taken over by the flood. Two people were rescued by a Madison alderman, but the driver slipped away.

“My instinct was we need to get them out of there, there’s not time,” said Matt Phair, an alderman for Madison’s 20th district.

Phair was checking out the flooding Monday night in his neighborhood and came across a submerged SUV on Chapel Hill Road.

“It was surreal and yet I knew what was happening,” Phair said of the moment he realized there were three people trapped in the vehicle.

Phair didn’t hesitate and went into the surging water.

“The force was unbelievable,” said Phair. “I had one slip of my foot where I knew that another step and I could be there too, that’s what is killing me today,”

Phair and another unidentified Good Samaritan rescued a man and a woman from the backseat. The driver tried to get out but stumbled. That’s when Phair grabbed a hold of his shirt.

“I’m holding and holding and holding and the water just overwhelmed us and we just let go,”

That man was swept away and rescue crews began an intense search immediately.

“So we walked through the stream with about six guys, arm-in-arm kicking and feeling around for the first 150, 200 yards here,” said assistant fire chief Clay Christenson with the Madison Fire Department.

His body was found almost 12 hours later -- about a third of a mile from where he went under the water.

“And I was the last person literally to touch this person’s body,” Now, Phair is replaying what happened in his mind over and over.

“(I’m) struggling but feeling grateful for all the people reaching out and feeling pain for the loss and thinking about the family,” added Phair. “People have already said that I’m a hero and I always hear this when you see other events the cliché but I just did what I think you or anyone else would have done,’

Phair went above and beyond and saved two lives in the process. Those two people now grateful for his selfless act of bravery.

“The woman didn’t say much but the man came over and gave me a huge hug and said……said I saved his life,”

Authorities have not released the identity of the man who died. They believe he was older, possibly in his 70s.


Crews recovered the body of the man who went missing in flood waters near Chapel Hill and Regis Roads on Monday, August 20th.

The man was in his 70's and was driving a car containing two passengers when it stalled in the flood waters and was carried into a normal dry drainage ditch

The vehicle was stranded near Chapel Hill Road and Regis Road on Madison's west side just after 9 p.m. on Monday night.

According to the Madison Police Department, a passerby saw the car nose down in the culvert and went to aid those trapped inside. The witness told police the vehicle was quickly filling up with water and the driver could not open his door. However, the witness was able to open the back door and assist the two passengers out of the car.

Authorities said while he was attempting to get them to safety, the female passenger got swept under the current. The wife of the man helping, grabbed the woman passenger the hair and pulled her out of the water.

The man and another witness were trying to save the driver, who had got out of the car, but the powerful current swept him away. Police said despite heroic efforts, the two men were unable to keep him from being sucked under the car.

Two others witnessed the missing person get sucked underneath the car through the current, according to the Madison Fire Department.

The three residents who helped will be nominated for life saving awards by the Madison Police Department.