Sunday, July 31, 2011

Big Thompson Flood

It was the summer of 1976. More specifically, it was July 31st. My sister was away at camp, and I was spending the weekend with my grandparents. As I quietly colored in the front room, I had no idea what was brewing in the Colorado mountains outside of Big Thompson Canyon. Staying in a cabin with friends along the typically peaceful river, my father was also oblivious to what fate had in store for him... He was about to become a hero, a lost soul, and a survivor of the worst natural disaster in Colorado history.

"I reached and grabbed Sue and told the others we had to get to the mountainside and, just as I picked her up, the water came from my ankles to chest deep and I remember turnin’ around and shuffling my feet and moving as quickly as I could... we both went under water."

As the sun began to fade, the hum of crickets filled the thick Nebraska air.  

"I was going to see if there was any way I could get across with the rope to help Ed, Ester, and Kim but, as soon as I got into the water, it just swept me right back into the shore. Propane tanks were coming down the river like torpedoes whistling... a station wagon came floating down clear over by where the road was, and they were pulling a small silver Streamline trailer. I remember the interior lights were on... you could tell they were in distress... and they just shot right on down the river."

I was safely tucked in bed, while my father's nightmare continued to rage on. 

"We went up the mountainside. Michael and I made a lean-to out of a poncho... everybody was soakin’ wet. We would run down the mountain... yelling and screaming for them, but we never did see anybody. The night was miserable, rainy."

My grandparent's house always smelled like coffee in the morning. It was Sunday... another day filled with imagination, time spent at the school playground up the street, and grandma's strawberry-banana Jello salad. 

"The kitchen was just a mass of twisted debris. There was another porch on the riverside that they had converted into living space for an extra little bedroom. That room itself was untouched.  Who would have ever thought that if they would have went into there, they probably would have survived. ~  I can’t remember walking up to the helicopter. Sue sat in my lap and we got all strapped in. When the helicopter took off to fly us to Loveland, I can remember putting my arms around her, and that’s when your daddy lost it. Very emotional."

As another summer day came to a close, the telephone rang. Without understanding what happened, I remember being ushered into the living room and seeing my dad on TV. Wearing a donated white t-shirt with red and blue sleeves covered in white stars, he was a vision of all-American survival. The phone continued to ring throughout the night with calls from family and friends who had recognized him on the news.

During the Big Thompson Flood, 144 lives were lost. Tragically, three of those were from my dad's party. Although he and Michael were unable to get back across the river to save them, they were able to save the young girls. Even though my dad still struggles with those difficult memories, I know what a true hero he is for not thinking twice before grabbing an innocent and terrified 11-year-old girl as the river attempted to swallow them whole. 

It would be 30 years before I would know exactly what my dad went through and the horror he witnessed. He kept this story to himself to cover his pain. When I returned to Denver in 2006, he planned to attend the 30-year anniversary of the flood. It was only because I was staying with him that I learned how much this devastating day impacted his life. Because I had been shielded from the truth, I asked him to tell me the story. I felt this would be an excellent way for me to better understand his experience, while acting as helpful therapy for him. Gratefully, he purchased a small tape recorder and shared his story. Since then, he had a special dinner reunion with Julie and Sue, the two girls who survived. I was lucky enough to attend that remarkable evening.

Today now marks the 35th anniversary of the flood. I know it still weighs on him heavily at times, so I write this in honor of him and the lives that were lost. I am so very proud of my dad for acting selflessly and with courage... and I am grateful his life was spared that day. 

Hug those you love today and think kindly of those who have hurt you.  Life is too short... anything can happen to any one of us at any moment.  

Additional flood facts: 143 lives lost, 418 homes destroyed along with 52 businesses, 438 vehicles, several bridges, roads, and telephone lines... This rare convergence of thunderstorms crested at an unfathomable 20 feet, with a peak water flow of 31,200 cubic feet per second vs. the normal flow of 210 cfs.

2009 reunion dinner at Chart House restaurant in Golden, CO
My father is on the right ~ Fellow survivors Sue (right) and Julie are in the center

Related Post: Read the full transcript of my father's detailed recording



2 comments:

  1. Touching. So glad you got to hear his story and enjoyed the weaving of your perceptions of that time.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Love the blog and glad I could share my story.

    ReplyDelete