Wichita Ryan Lane said he remembers not being able to see well as he drove through the downpour on the Kansas Turnpike five years ago.
Moments later, his 1994 Mercury Cougar slammed into a wave of water cresting over the road at Jacob Creek south of Emporia. Lane said he climbed out of his car's sunroof and leaped into the thigh-deep water.
He then began helping Al Larsen of Fort Worth, Texas, pull other stranded drivers out of their stalled vehicles and help them find shelter in cars pulled over farther up the highway.
The situation then turned from dangerous to deadly when a concrete median gave way, allowing a wall of water to surge over the road, sweeping people and vehicles off the turnpike.
Six people died in the flash flood on Aug. 30, 2003, including Larsen and five members of a family whose van was trapped against the median: Melissa Rogers of Glenaire, Mo., and her children, Makenah, 8; Zachery, 5; Nicholas, 3; and Alenah, 1. Rogers' husband survived.
Lane said Larsen saved his life, urging him and others to move moments for the median broke open.
"I remember it all pretty vividly," said Lane, now 29 and living in Boulder, Colo. "I just remember being on auto-pilot in a lot of ways and not really being aware of the danger."
Gov. Kathleen Sebelius honored Lane and Larsen for their heroism during a ceremony for flood victims, survivors and law enforcement at the Matfield Green service area a few months later.
For Lane, the near-death experience helped refocus a life that he admitted had become undefined a year after his mother's death. The 24-year-old had graduated with a psychology degree from Kansas University two years earlier but didn't know what to do with and was working as a hotel desk clerk in Lawrence.
He said his actions that night intensified his interest in meditation, leading him to move to Boulder and graduate in contemplative psychotherapy from Naropa University, a small liberal-arts college.
He now works for Windhorse Community Services, which provides therapy for those with severe mental disorders, and teaches meditation and martial arts at Naropa. He also works at a transitional home for substance abusers. Lane also wants to travel to China to study meditation and martial arts.
"I learned there's a lot more courage and clarity within me than I would've guessed," he said of the flood. "I remember being aware of needing to help people and instantly going there and beginning to pull people out of cars. I was really overcome with a sense of connection, how easy it was to connect with people."
Lane said he stayed in touch with some of those he helped, as well as Larsen's widow, Elizabeth-Anne.
He said he is planning to visit family and friends in Lawrence this week and may visit the memorial at Matfield Green, where a tree is planted in his honor.
"I definitely hold August 30 as a poignant day in my life," he said.