Big Thompson Flood: A Personal Recollection


09/2021 - I discovered a KIIX Radio reel dated 8/1/76; J.J. Stone interviews my dad.
10/2019 - My dad passed away unexpectedly on 10/19/2019.
07/2016 - I attended the 40th anniversary memorial event with my dad. 

Original Post:

Many have asked to view the full transcript of my dad's recording that details his personal experience in the Big Thompson Flood of 1976. He and I are happy to share his story, so here it is in its entirety. This transcript (or any portion of it) may not be used or copied without permission. Please email me with questions or requests. Thanks!

Note: The flood happened on July 31, 1976, and my dad bottled up his emotions until the 30th anniversary. It was then that I asked if he'd share his experience in a recording, with the hope that it would begin the healing process for him and also help me to understand what he went through that fateful day. Telling his story for the first time was an exhausting, raw, and emotional process. That said, I felt it was important to transcribe the recording exactly as it was spoken.       
Transcribed by Natalie Starnes from audiotape recorded July 2006 by 1976 Big Thompson Flood survivor Corky Huss

Well Steph and Natalie… here we go. I’m gonna give it a try with my little cassette player. I guess first it’d be appropriate to explain why your dad was up there, if you didn’t know, uh, Vern and Vera Aitken. I’ll use last names now, but not during the rest of it. They were the property owners. Vern was in charge of the Residential Department, and he was my boss. His wife Vera worked next door in the in the Treasurer’s office. They’d had the property, after speaking to Vera, I guess today, for like 20 years. It used to be a stagecoach stop between Loveland and Estes Park. The address I believe she said was 15, or, 1494 Big Thompson Canyon. Highway 34. And of course the other people up there with me were Ed and Ester Kronenberger, their daughters Julie, Kim, and Kim’s fiancée, as a matter of fact, uh, Kim and her fiancée Michael had come down, I believe it was from Fort Collins, that Saturday afternoon of the flood to surprise her folks that they were becoming engaged or they had just become engaged. Uh, another little girl, Sue Hoefer, whose last name, thanks Natalie, is Gaskill. She was an 11-year-old friend of their daughter Julie and I guess, other than this, there’s other times that she’d come up, when they went up to the canyon for the weekend. There was one other lady who lived two houses downstream. Her name was Etta Salisbury (sp). And we’re the ones that were there that night.
During the course of the day, uh, Ed and I spent the whole day mowing, trimming, etc. because Vern and Vera were so nice to let us go up there, more or less anytime we wanted. As a matter of fact, Vern had given me a key, and, so I could get in whenever I went up there, if they weren’t there. And when we were mowing that day, we had moved the three cars... mine, Ed’s, and Michael’s. Kinda almost headed up the mountain on the side, to get ‘em outta the way for all the mowing and trimming we were doing. And then that night, I remember our meal, only because I went shortly after the flood, and Ester’s sister wanted me to tell her as much about her sister... sister’s last day. And we had a pot roast with all the trimmings, and that was our meal for the evening. Anyhow, we noticed the river was comin’ up, and it was startin’ to cloud over. Like I say it was clear and sunny partly cloudy there all day, a really nice day and us not knowing they had that big thunderhead that settled in and lasted for hours which, it, the, the weather people up there said they usually move on through quickly but, due to certain weather conditions you can read about in some material I’m sending you, will tell about all the rain up above. 

Anyhow, I remember asking Etta, she had lived there for years, how high she’d seen the water, and she said she’d seen it come out of the bank up to her front porch before. But if I remember right, I don’t think it ever did get into the house. And the river kept rising. We’d go up into the yard, come back, stand on the bridge, watch the river rise... and the people straight across, the river next to the road, their son or someone who did the propane deliveries up and down the Big Thompson Canyon there, he got there and yelled at us and said that we should get to high ground, for it had, they had those torrential rains up above us, and he said there was water running off the mountainside in the ravines that carried as much water as the river itself did, and he’d never seen anything like it. Fortunately for us, before that, we had discussed maybe jumping in our cars and just getting out of there and come back another weekend. Thank goodness that guy came along or we might have done that, and I wouldn’t be giving this interview.
Uh, after he told us that, we went up to the house, and I think Ed was already up there, he had been on the phone calling the weather channel or calling someone after that to check on some things. And we decided because of what that gentleman told us, we started throwing blankets, maybe some food, flashlights, ponchos, etc. into two boxes and when the first box was full, I remember Michael ran it across, and I believe Etta was already over there on the bank, and he threw his box up on the bank, and about that time I had my box full of whatever it was, and as I ran my box across, Michael was on his way back to the screen porch on the mountainside where Ed, Ester, and Kim and Sue were gathered, and he grabbed their daughter and ran back across with Julie as I was coming back from throwing my box on the shore and, as I was running back water was splashing, you know, maybe ankle deep at the highest, and the river itself had not come out of its banks up to the house. But the time I got to the screened in porch, 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 about probably six foot, I’m guessing, from the screened porch there was a detached garage. Fortunately it was there, it diverted the water where we could make it across in front of it, and then we hit the raging water coming down the other side of it between it and the mountain, and there was a big dead tree like halfway between us and the mountainside we needed to get to. Uh, if I remember right, I told Sue “hang on,” and I had to dive for the tree and, fortunately, somehow, we got to the tree, and I think we both went under water. I remember the one time that I saw Sue after that, she asked me if I realized that she was completely under water when I lunged and caught the tree. And as how we got from the tree to the bank is unclear to me. Michael must have had a stick or something we could grab a hold of to get us pulled over, cuz I don’t think I could have made it on my own but that part escapes me.
Once we got up on shore, I can remember we were looking over and Ester, Ed, and Kim were still on the screened in porch yelling for help. I remember asking Etta if she might have any rope down at her property and she said, yes, she had a big rope hanging in the back of the garage. Her garage was kind of built right back into the base of the mountain, and there was a window there. Either kicking or using something, we broke the window in, got inside and got the rope and ran back up, and the rope, uh, tied to my waist, and I think Michael wrapped the rope two or three times around a tree to where he could inch me out, and 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. Thank God the rope was on me, but, that was the purpose of it in case I couldn’t make it. Then after a period of time standing there, during the course of all this, of course, uh, propane tanks were just coming down the river like torpedoes whistling, uh, I guess the most gruesome thing that I saw or helpless other than Ed, Ester, and Kim on the porch and we couldn’t get over there to help them, was 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 and, uh, this, apparently I think it was the lady, you could just tell they were in distress in the car, and it just shot right on down the river.  Uh, and then, I can’t remember if it was that time or later when Michael and I came back down after we went up the mountain, I’ll get into that in a minute, but, anyhow, at one of the times we were standing there, uh, Vern and Vera’s son Jim, while he was in the service in Germany, with a friend of his, purchased an old Mercedes convertible, I’m thinking a 1928 or ‘38 somethin’ like that, and it was just immaculate condition and that thing just come floating right out of the garage and took off down the river and it probably wasn’t 15-20 minutes later I remember the whole garage broke loose intact and just took off down river. And by that time there was mobile homes, etc. and parts of houses and buildings and... something like a scene out of the movies. But, anyhow, we figured it was time, I think it started raining there then, we went up the mountainside with the neighbor Etta, Julie, Kim (Sue), and Michael and I. Michael and I made a lean-to out of a poncho or it may have been a couple ponchos and then we had a couple blankets, but the girls dressed in their nightie, nightgowns, etc. whatever - they were ready for bed just before we headed up, or dressed for bed. And everybody was soakin’ wet and, uh, we left Etta and the two girls there, and Michael and I ran back down the mountain and couldn’t see anything at the house, any signs of anybody, so a safe distance up, we would run down the mountain, hoping that if they would have got washed out of there, that they may have been able to swim over to shore or, you know, hoping for the best. Yelling and screaming for them, but we never did see anybody. And the noise was just unbelievable, these large boulders churning, coming down the river and still more propane tanks, etc. Then we went back over, I guess, back up the mountain, after we could see there was nothing we could do and check on the three of them up there and, I can’t remember, but I’m sure we probably came back down later and checked again up and down the mountainside, trying to find some form of life. Uh, the night, uh, it was miserable, rainy, but the poncho, whatever we made the lean-to out of, helped. And then the next morning, Michael and I decided we should go down alone first and we left them on the mountainside, and the stench of propane and probably gas and a little bit of everything, it was the most rancid smell I think I’ve ever smelled in my life. And the devastation was probably the worst of anything maybe other than seeing a town hit by a tornado back home.
Uh, there were like five cars in their property up and down the river there that were just mangled, half buried, twisted, you couldn’t tell what kind they were unless you could see something that told you.  Uh, they sure weren’t recognizable. Uh, I remember a frame from a mobile home was just twisted around a tree like a piece of string. I don’t know how that happened, but water has forces. Uh, I’m trying to think, uh, we went over by the house and looked in, I think the water had receded that area, enough for that. I can remember it was a tree that came in the back side of the house where the bedrooms were, uh, and just washed everything out of there right down through the middle of the house, and it had picked up the front of the house like an overhead garage door and just washed everything out of the middle portions of the house. The kitchen next to it that was next to the screened in porch on the mountainside was just a mass of twisted debris that I, you couldn’t walk through it, but you could kind of crawl and push stuff away, I think, to get in through there, and the oddest thing of all, there was another porch on the riverside that they had, uh, converted into living space for an extra little bedroom with a little twin bed or cot or something in there, for extra room. That room itself was untouched. The river itself never got up to the house. At the curve up above us, when the water was coming down, instead of following the curve, which I suppose half of it did and the other half cut a new channel, and that’s what came down through the area where the house sat. But anyhow, that little bedroom on the river side had a few inches of silt and mud on the floor and the rest of the room was untouched. Who would have ever thought that if they would have went into there, they probably would have survived.

And shortly after, whenever we went back up the mountain and Etta, Julie and Sue, uh, came on down to the river area with us, and, uh, I don’t think it was too long after that a gentleman come hiking down the mountain on the side we were on, and it was Etta’s son. And all this time I thought he was a cop for the city of Denver but what, being up there this weekend, a gentleman told me that he owned a helicopter rebuilding company, I believe, up in Fort Collins. So I’m going to have to check a phone book, I know she is now deceased, uh, Vera told me today and, but, it would just be nice to talk to him to see what he remembered from his mother’s thoughts or whatever, because he took her up the mountainside. He had flown in, in a helicopter or had someone fly him on a helicopter and landed on some flat area, Vera said there was a lot of flat area up on top. And he took his mother back up the mountain and flew her outta there and told us that help was on the way. And, uh, away they went.
I actually can’t even remember crossing the river, but I know we did get across, uh, I know Julie said she thought a helicopter had landed over there to get us on the other side and, like I say, this is the time in my mind I don’t remember a lot of things. Except we all did gather down at the Big Thompson Association building, community building, that’s where a gathering point was and, uh, I think they were taking names, etc. so maybe they could let people know on the other end about the survivors. And of course, at this point, we were still missing Ed, Ester, and their daughter Kim. Uh, they’d said some people down below, you know, there were survivors and we were just hopin’ for the best. I know between us and the community building the first house across the river from us downstream, I’m going to guess 150 yards, just before we got there, we did see one body and, uh, I think that they had already put him in the back of a pick-up truck that was parked there by the property. Other than that, we didn’t see any bodies, but right straight across from the house the road was, you know, almost all of it had been eaten out in the big area there.
But anyhow, they, we gathered at that center I was telling you about, where the memorial was today, er, Monday, Sunday, cuz Monday was at the park. And, uh, I think the helicopter landed up towards Drake where the road was wider, and once they knew it was coming in, uh, they ushered us all up there to board the helicopters for people in that area. I can’t remember walking up to the helicopter, I don’t remember gettin’ on, my next thought was sitting in the helicopter, I remember this very clear, and Sue sat in my lap and we got all strapped in, and when the helicopter took off to fly us to Loveland, I can remember putting my arms around Sue, and that’s when your daddy lost it. Uh, very emotional, and then they flew us up to Loveland and they must have bussed us or something to the high school, we used their auditorium, uh, the Red Cross and people had brought in all kind of donations of clothing and food and everything, and I think they had a free phone service, one of those things like they use in the service with three or four phones on each side, or something that we could make calls to our loved ones to let us know we were okay. I have to confirm with Vern and Vera. Uh, they were at a Treasurer’s convention she said in Glenwood Springs, not knowing what had happened with any of us, their daughter Julie, her husband, and I believe their son were supposed to have been up there that weekend also, and they didn’t find out until later that something else had come up and they had gone to Colorado Springs or Pueblo, which I’m sure was a big relief for them. And then I remember Vern and Vera getting there. That was quite emotional. Uh, and then Vern and I sat down on the cot that I was using and talking and that’s when that lady reporter from New York, that was flown in to cover the flood, came over and asked if I would do an interview with her, and at first I didn’t really want to and I talked with Vern, and I think a lot of the questions she asked I consulted with Vern. The one that sticks out in my mind, they asked if we lost any people and I can vividly remember Vern leaning over and whispering to me “No we haven’t lost anyone yet, but we have three missing.” And, that was the one that was on the national news that Natalie tells me she was at grandma and grandpa’s and remembers seeing dad on TV in his white t-shirt. And Steph was at a summer camp I guess, somewhere, maybe camp Jefferson. But anyhow, I remember the shirt too, it was white but the sleeves were colored. I can’t remember, like I said, if both were blue, I do remember one blue and it had white stars, and I’m thinking the other one was red with white stars.  Uh, but I remember the folks saying how many phone calls they got. The one I remember in particular was Bob Gerhardt, uh, I think at that time he was the chief of police on vacation, I think down in the Ozarks. But a lot of other people called too and wanted to know if that was their Corky that they saw on the news.
There was one thing I forgot at the beginning - I spoke about Vern and Vera, uh, I did mention Ed and Ester, Ed also worked with Vern and I at the Arapahoe County Assessor’s Office, uh, he was in charge of the land department and his wife Ester, after talking to Vera, that first time I spoke with her, reminded me that she was a school teacher and she was grading papers, etc. up there and, after she told me that, I do remember her grading papers now, cuz one thing I forgot when Ed and I were busy doing the mowing, trimming, etc., he ended up with huge blister, I believe, on his right thumb, and I remember going in the house and, uh, she was working on paperwork, uh, maybe I don’t recall that she was a teacher, but that’s what she was doing. We found a band-aid, and I went out and put the band-aid on Ed’s thumb. And that will become relevant later on, when I tell you about going to the old hospital that they used for a makeshift morgue because of all the bodies. I guess that would be the next thing. It was the article I sent you, Natalie, I think was dated August 3rd, that his body had been discovered and identified, uh, I remember his brother called me and wanted to know if I would please ride to Loveland with him and help identify Ed’s body. Uh, so that must have been on like the 2nd. Uh, we went up there and, uh, that’s another thing I’ll never forget, uh, like I say it was a makeshift morgue, in the old hospital. The doctors, or whoever were up there, didn’t want us just to walk in right away and see the body. They showed us pictures of what to expect, they had a plastic bag that I believe had a watch and a ring. I remember those two. And as soon as I saw the ring, I knew the body was gonna be Ed’s. It was like a Masonic Temple or something, it was a big red stone, and it had like an upside down V on it, as I remember, I think they may be the Masonic Temple symbol or something, but I know there was significance to the ring. I can’t remember if it was his dad’s or what the significance was to the ring, because I remember he showed it to me at work one time, and he was so proud of that ring. That’s why I knew it had to be his body. And they open this door, from what I can remember, the room was probably 8-12 foot wide and probably 12-16 foot long down to a window, and it was just one solid line of corpses with sheets over them, and wouldn’t you know it was like clear down the other end, the next to last body or something like that, so we had to walk all the way down the room past all those bodies, and I remember him pulling the sheet back and, it was, the body was swollen and covered with large amounts of bruises, and of course, that they tell ya he had to live a long time because of all the bruising cuz you don’t bruise once you pass away and your heart stops, and I’m sure you kids knew that. But anyhow, uh, we both recognized the body and confirmed it was his. I don’t remember the trip up or the trip back, I just remember that day at the makeshift morgue and that’s what happened on that day.
And the other thing I forgot to mention, which I said I would. I explained to the guy there at the morgue that, uh, we had been doing the mowing, trimming, etc. and I asked about a band-aid on his right thumb and, uh, they pulled the sheet down and, would you believe, that band-aid was still on his thumb. That’s the significance of the band-aid I put on."

© Natalie Starnes | All Rights Reserved

Related Post:

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.

Flood Related Media Coverage:
(I'm still searching for my dad's live interview after he was transported to Loveland, CO)