Darren Gates

Darren Gates of Johns Island talks about rescuing an elderly woman from a submerged vehicle during Tropical Storm Irma. Michael Majchrowicz/Staff

JOHNS ISLAND - Irma’s fury was pouring into the elderly woman’s car at an alarming rate.

Darren Gates reached through the driver's window — the rain still falling, the water in the car rising — and clutched a piece of the woman’s clothing as he pulled her from the vehicle.

“Lady, we gotta go,” Gates told her, he recalled. “If this car goes, I don’t know what I can do for you.”

The panic-stricken woman wrapped her arms around Gates’ neck as he swam to where he could feel the ground beneath him, he said. The car behind them — the same car the woman tried to drive through the flooded area before she realized it was too late — began to drift with the current as the water swallowed it.

On the roadway beside the overflowing river, water measured up to 3 feet, Gates said.

At his Johns Island home Thursday, Gates recalled the Sept. 11 ordeal, which unfolded on River Road near the Limehouse Bridge as Tropical Storm Irma pounded South Carolina. By the time authorities responded two hours later — EMS was suspended for a period during the storm due to high winds — Gates and the woman were already gone.

The elderly woman, who Gates said appeared to be in her 70s, was never identified by authorities. Even her rescuer said he doesn’t know her name.

When Gates reached land, others stood ready with blankets as the two emerged from the water. Just before he swam to get the woman, he had handed his wallet to a stranger, Francisco Aguayo, 33, who also spotted the doomed car.

“In case something happens so someone knows who I am,” Gates told the man and his wife, Ashley Dyson, 30, who live nearby.

Dyson said she watched Gates swim to safety. She was clutching a rope she’d retrieved from her nearby home but couldn’t use because it wasn’t long enough.

“By the time I got there, the water had started sweeping her away,” Dyson said. “I asked, ‘Is she the only one in the car?’ I kept saying it. ... If there was someone in the car with her, I just wanted to jump in and help.”

Bearing in mind the destruction of Irma, Gates is comforted by the thought he was in the right place at the right time.

“I hope someone would do the same for me,” he said. “I was just trying to do the right thing.”

Reach Michael Majchrowicz at 843-607-1052. Follow him on Twitter @mjmajchrowicz.

Michael Majchrowicz is a reporter covering crime and public safety. He previously wrote about courts for the Daily Hampshire Gazette in Northampton, Massachusetts. A Hoosier native, he graduated from Indiana University with a degree in journalism.