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Heroes of February 1953 Flood finally recognized for saving untold lives
Tags: Excerpts from the Windmill
NIEUWERKERK AAN DE IJSSEL, the Netherlands – Volunteers Cornelis Heuvelman and Johannes Aart van Vliet, whose heroic efforts at closing a breech in a local dike in the night of February 1, 1953 and saved much of the heartland of the province of South Holland from a potentially very disastrous flood, recently received an official award from the Carnegie Heldenfonds after nearly 56 years.
During the ceremony at the municipal hall in Nieuwerkerk aan den IJssel, Mayor Bonthuis, praised the two men for their heroism, which according to him underscored how the action of just a few in an emergency can make a huge difference. During the night of the storm the waves had started to erode the Schielandse Hoge Zeedijk making a breech inevitable. The dike protected a large part of the densely populated Randstad, making a breech potentially the greatest tragedy in the history of the Netherlands.
To ward off a disaster, Nieuwerkerk’s then Mayor Vogelaar requisitioned Arie Evegroen’s grain barge Twee gebroeders to reinforce the weakened dike. Cornelis Heuvelman volunteered to help the owner of the barge.
The weakened section of the dike had grown to a width of 14 metres, a distance that the 18-metres long barge barely could hopefully protect. Cornelis Heuvelman suggested that Arie Evegroen steer the ship head-first into the dike, in front of the spot which had already turned into a breech. They then roped the ship, which was further pushed against the dike by the waves, closing much of the opening. The rest needed to be closed off with sandbags. Since the weakened dike could not support heavy trucks anymore, the Mayor also requisitioned Johannes Aart van Vliet’s barge Onderneming II and ordered him to take the sandbags to the dike. Van Vliet also treated the hundreds of volunteers with the sandbags to steaming coffee and a hot stove to warm up again from their efforts in the frigid-cold storm.
Saving the dike was a strenuous and nerve-wracking effort that took place under almost impossible circumstances. The efforts of Heuvelman and Van Vliet spared the lives of an untold number of people who lived behind the weakened dike. The unusually high tidal surge meant waves were being swept up to a very dangerous level.
The award was the first public recognition for Heuvelman and Van Vliet. The story of Arie Evegroen’s barge Twee Gebroeders has been memorialized with a monument showing a replica that protrudes from the dike’s shoulder. Even in the ongoing Dutch struggle to keep the country dry, the Evegroen story rates as most unique, perhaps equaled only by the Colijnsplaat, Zeeland incident (told by author K. Norel in the book Stand By, Boys!) during the very same night in which villagers with their shoulders managed to push back long enough to keep a water barrier from collapsing. They too were saved by a ship, which, cut loose by the storm, was swept in front of the threatened barrier. That ship also spared the lives of many.