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Victims of the Big Thompson Canyon Flood, Colorado
July 31, 1976
Memory submitted by Julie A. Kronenberger
It was the coldest, wettest, scariest night of their eleven-year-old lives. As soon as the sun rose, they began the steep hike down the canyon mountain -- Julie and Sue, best friends “forever,” Michael and Corky, the adults who kept them safe, and the unnamed neighbor lady with her black poodle. The problem was that Michael and Corky were not Julie's parents; Julie's parents were missing.
The sun warmed their shivers and dried them as they surveyed the land around them. What they saw resembled another planet compared to how it looked just yesterday. Oh, how awesome nature can be! Thanks to an almost 40 foot wall of water that came crashing into their peaceful, cozy canyon, a typical summer rainfall became a nightmare. Houses, garages and other structures had simply disappeared, and those remaining barely resembled what they once were. Some buildings were pushed thousands of yards from their original locations. Cars were buried under tons of debris, and were only recognizable by their partially exposed headlights and wheels. Large, several ton chunks of road had fallen out of the black ribbon of highway that wound through the canyon, and stuck up from the river as huge vertical walls, ten and even twenty feet high. The landscape was surreal, devastated, and different, yet in the light of day, strangely calm, as if resting after its labored birth.
The flash flood knocked out all of the bridges in the area too. For miles and miles in either direction, there was no way to cross the river, even though now it seemed quite tame. More than tame, it seemed almost contrite considering the havoc it had wreaked overnight. Julie noted that the acre and a half of mountain lawn that her father had mowed yesterday with his riding tractor mower was completely gone, leaving a sandy, muddy, beach-like surface as far as the eye could see. All that work for nothing.
The neighbor lady who had spent the night with them went over to survey the damage done to her home, which was originally on one side of Julie's family’s series of cabins. One of the little cabins had slid right into her garage, totaling her car and most of the garage too. The house itself, though still standing, was a conglomeration of mud, sticks, and gray debris. She had lost everything.
Julie and Sue, however, were buzzing. This was an adventure! This was like Swiss Family Robinson, Gilligan's Island, and Land of the Lost all rolled into one! This was a continuation of the “camping” game she and Sue had played two nights ago, while they stayed in the cabin as they did for long weekends every summer.
Michael, Julie's sister Kim's boyfriend, was a mere twenty-five, but he certainly knew the gravity of the situation. Kimmy and her parents were missing, and he was terrified. He kept his voice light for the sake of the children while he fought hard to hold onto his sanity and control his fear.
“Let’s find large rocks and spell out HELP in the mud,” said Michael to the girls. He made it sound like fun, but he was wise enough to know that their excitement was caused by a combination of daylight, the fact that they were finally warm and getting dry, fear, and nervous energy. He also knew that it wouldn't last, and he needed to buy time. He tried to feed off of their energy for his own sake, and promised himself that he would do all in his power to protect them. Fun or not, he was serious about making a huge sign of rocks. He was hoping to shorten what could be a very long wait, for they had no shelter, no food, and no way over the river. They needed to grab the attention of one of the helicopters he saw flying overhead, and meet up with someone who could help them.
In the midst of this “game,” he brightly asked, “Anyone hungry? We've been on the wet side of a mountain for over 15 hours, and I'm famished! Let's search through this mess to find a snack.” No one argued.
Michael braved entering the cabin just west of theirs, which was still standing
but was practically empty. The wall facing them had disappeared, and every
stick of furniture had gone with it. Everything else was shoved into the kitchen,
and was covered with a thick layer of mud. He went in alone, partly to find
something to eat, and partly to check on the old woman who lived there 365
days a year. He was afraid of what he might find. It seemed no one was home,
and he was relieved.
He and Julie sifted through what seemed to be the garage, since the kitchen was unrecognizable, and they found a wet bag of Tootsie Pops and a six-pack of Fresca. “Breakfast of champions!” exclaimed Corky, who was doing his own exploration outside with Sue during the food hunt. Corky was the oldest of the group, at just over forty, and he had worked with Julie's father for years. Having little family of his own, he had become very close to Julie's family, and this trip with them to the mountains was an annual event. The girls were thrilled at “breakfast,” especially because everyone knew candy and pop were taboo in the morning. Corky had plugged right in to the fact that Michael didn't want to discuss or even think about the missing three, especially with the girls, and did his best to make light of the situation at hand. He too felt the huge gap that should have been filled with Julie's parents and sister. Michael and he, with an exchange of glances, made an unspoken pact to get the children, and themselves, out of this safely, and to do what they could to find those they loved.
The girls scrambled about gathering rocks to spell out S.O.S. and HELP, and made up a game trying to guess what things used to be. They picked out shapes that could have been cars and tried to guess what kind they were, or their colors, and they visualized huge, wet heaps of wood and twisted metal into house shapes, which could have once stood with flowers in pretty window boxes. They also looked for trinkets, and found and collected stuff that was cool. Unconsciously, or maybe not, they didn't look too hard inside mangled cars, or inside wasted structures, or under big, heavy things, for they were just a little afraid of what they might find.
Where the cabin's garage used to sit was a flat, cement surface. Sue and Julie fantasized about the helicopter landing there; the pilot guiding the huge, mysterious craft to the spot to use it as a helipad after he read their sign and swooped down out of the sky to rescue them.
“I wonder if they will bring us food,” asked Sue, who was feeling a rumbling of her stomach that Tootsie Pops and Fresca just didn't touch. She was also getting very thirsty.
“Yeah, and we may get to go on those boards and be pulled up on ropes!” replied Julie, whose favorite T.V. show was Emergency.
“Nuh uh,” said Sue, “they won’t do that because we're
not hurt! That only happens when people can't move their necks 'cause their
backs might be broken.”
“Maybe they would let us if we asked them to -- or we could fake it!” Julie wanted to milk this adventure for all it was worth. If she was going up in a helicopter, she wanted it to be extra cool, so the other kids at school would be really impressed. “I bet none of our friends have ever been in a helicopter!”
Julie knew that her parents and sister were not with them, but she unconsciously felt that they were in the same situation, stranded across from the road, but further up the river. Right now, she was young and healthy, and this was the a better adventure than the ones she loved to read about. When she saw her parents, they would share this experience, and they would have their own stories. She was brave, and was helping Michael, and they would be so proud!
“Aah youth,” Michael thought. He smiled, watched the girls play in the sunshine, and started to panic. This portion of the canyon was only so big, and he had hoped like hell that as time went by and the sun rose, that Kimmy, Esther and Ed would be showing up describing their own wet night spent on the side of the steep mountain. As time went by, as noon came and went, as the helicopters continued to miss them, and as the thirst he and the others felt became painful, he felt only despair. He fought to keep it from the others.
Michael had proposed to his girlfriend of two years, Kim, that weekend. She was the light of his life, the bravest soul he had ever met, and his best friend, and she had said yes. They had made a special trip to the cabin the evening before to surprise her parents and share their news. Nothing bad could happen now; they were in love! They hadn't told anyone yet! They were going to be planning a wedding! And what about the old adage that love conquers all? It was all he could do not to run up and down the mountain calling for Kimmy. He wanted desperately to see her frightened face, enfold her into his strong arms, and save her from all that was bad. And he was so tired and so thirsty.
Several hours later, with the helicopters still circling, a police officer appeared across the river, on horseback, on what was left of the road. He called to them over the roar of the impassable river, “How many are you?” He had to yell more than once in order to be heard.
Corky had watched him approach, and ran to the bank. Grateful for something to do, Michael jumped up too, and held up his hand. He shouted “Five -- with two children,” he indicated, “but we are missing three others!”
“Well the helicopter is working its way down to this part of the river, so they should get you across within the hour!” the officer shouted in response. “Hang tight!! Maybe your friends are at the community center down the road. 'Bout 40 or 50 people are there already, and there's hot coffee!!” It was 2:30 in the afternoon. They had been alone for almost 20 hours.
Michael felt his spirits rise, and turned to the children to keep from diving into the river to get to the center and find his beloved.
“Hey, a horse!” sang out Sue, who could think of nothing cooler than horses. “Can we go over there and see it?” she asked. She was tired of this silly game, and she wanted to just skip over the river and get on with life.
“Sooner than you think,” said Michael, “sooner than you think. Just a little while longer and we'll be picked up in a helicopter!”
Julie and Sue were dancing around and singing, preparing for the big rescue, when suddenly Julie stopped. “Wow, remember that pond that had that huge trout named Harold in it? I think it was right here,” she said, suddenly subdued. Harold was indeed a huge trout, over 24 inches long, and he had lived in his own little pond right in front of the little cabin for as long as she could remember coming here. She was afraid of it, because it was quite deep! Now there was just a bit of chicken wire sticking out where she thought the pond used to be -- no hole, and certainly no Harold.
“He was really really old,” she said sadly. “I think he's
probably dead.” She turned to Michael, and asked, “Michael? Do
you think a lot of fishes and other animals died in the flood?”
Michael's heart was breaking, and he fought to keep tears from his eyes. The look on Julie's face spoke volumes about what she was really thinking, but she couldn't bring herself to ask where her mommy and daddy were. Careful, he thought, eleven years old was still a kid, but it was also a rather wise and perceptive age. He had hoped to avoid this conversation forever, and needed more time to avoid it, but he just couldn't lie. He also hadn't yet given up hope.
“Yes, I'm afraid they did, sweetie.” He put his arm around Julie’s shoulder, and tried to quickly change the subject. “Once we get to the other side of the river we'll see other people, and be able to get some water! I can’t wait!” He remained as vague as Julie was about her parents, but he hoped she caught his meaning. She didn’t say a word, but smiled up at him and hugged him back.
“I also heard him say coffee!” yawned Corky, who, despite the excitement of building signs of rocks, surveying the landscape, and entertaining two young girls, was exhausted from his long sleepless night. The warm sun didn't help either, but he shook himself awake, consciously picking up on Michael's intentions. This was not a conversation that should be held right now. Not yet.
“I'm not allowed to drink coffee,” said Sue, “but I hope they have breakfast over there. I'm hungry.”
“I like coffee,” said Julie, “my mom makes it for me with lots of milk and sugar. I hope they have Pop Tarts!”
Sue wandered over to the unrecognizable structure they had slept in two nights ago, and began pacing and staring at the wall of the cabin that faced the river. The force of the water had pushed the wall out about five feet from the bottom. It remained attached at the top. All of the cabin's insides, six rooms’ worth, were shoved into that small front room, and they spilled out onto the sandy, wet, brown mud.
“I need to find my suitcase,” she was saying. “It was my dad's, and he'll be so mad! It also had my coat in it, which was brand new. I’m in big trouble if I don’t find it.” She looked close to tears, but was determined.
Sue was fixating on her damn suitcase. There was no way anyone could go in there and lift the debris and mud and muck that had pushed that wall out. It was so packed it was probably watertight! Michael, with his pre-med mind, recognized that Sue was using a classic defense mechanism in the midst of this chaos. Looking for her suitcase was a way for her to channel her fear into something she felt she could control. Nevertheless, it annoyed him. He fought for patience.
“Sue, I don't think we can move that wall right now or search through that stuff to find your suitcase. I'm sure your daddy won't be too angry if we can't find it right away. He'll be so happy that you are okay, that he won't even remember the suitcase. The sun is out too, so you won't need your coat for a while.” He spoke gently despite his annoyance, and it took a few repetitions before Sue finally gave it up.
Julie couldn't figure out what the big deal was about her suitcase - she had stuff in there too, but nothing she needed right this second. She thought Sue was being kind of a baby. It made her remember, however, that both of her dad's fishing poles, which had been in the now missing garage, were probably lost and gone forever. Just yesterday he had showed her how to put a live worm on the hook and how to cast the line properly into the river to catch a fish. Julie hated the worm part, and had no interest in touching let along eating newly caught fish, but it was fun to be with her daddy. He would be so proud of her if she caught one! He had promised that she wouldn't have to touch it, and she told him that she just might try a bite, for him.
She had stood on a smooth rock just a foot and a half into the river, with her dad a few feet away. A fish bit her hook - Surprise! Although the water where she stood was only about ten inches deep, she slipped off of the rock and slid feet first into the freezing river up to her neck. It was cold! She held on tight to the fishing pole, however, for Daddy had told her to be careful with it. It was his Pride and Joy. Everyone laughed, including her, once she recovered. Her mother ran down to the rock with a big fluffy towel, and the sun didn’t take too long to warm her up again. The fish got away, but she had saved the pole. Now it was gone.
“Look, there's a helicopter! Wave at it! Get its attention!” cried Corky, pulling Julie out of her reverie.
Julie, Sue, Michael and Corky ran around in the clearing, waving like mad at the helicopter. After what seemed an eternity, it landed, just a few feet from the river. Julie and Sue were amazed to see how big it actually was, especially compared to the cement square they thought would work for a landing pad. They stared in awe as the pilot got out and beckoned to them. It was a little scary, too, now that it was real.
Sue and Corky got in first, and were flown a mere 30 feet, just across the river. Then it returned and picked up Michael and Julie.
“That was dumb,” pouted Julie. “We only went across the river! We didn't even get to go up high!”
“Yeah, but now we can see if we can find the others,” said Michael quickly, trying to get everyone to move. It worked.
They walked, anxious to see more than the tiny pocket of canyon they had been stranded in since first light. As they went, they silently marveled at the power of nature, yet its seeming randomness. Julie spied three wooden steps that had obviously once led into a home, but there was no house to be seen. Why hadn't those rickety wooden steps been swept away along with the house? The mysteries of nature. There were dead fish everywhere too, and Julie kept her eye out for Harold. She couldn’t help but think of things more morbid, but she kept silent. Huge, uprooted trees, cars, houses, fence posts, and other debris had created small dams, and the water pooled where it could. Nothing looked familiar. Strips of metal, telephone lines and vegetation had wrapped itself around trees and telephone poles, as high as fifteen feet, and the direction of the current was apparent by the way everything pointed in the same direction. There were several places where the three foot thick asphalt road was simply gone, so washed out and broken up that they had to hike up the canyon wall in order to continue.
The other fascinating thing was how high above the river they were, or rather the road was. Fifteen to twenty feet below them, the river wound around, harmless, as if afraid to own up to the damage it had done previously. Just eight hours ago, this very road on which they walked was far, far under water. There was a line on the wall of the canyon that showed how high the water had gone, and had it not been there, along with the destruction, no one would have believed what had just occurred. It still didn’t feel real. They felt like they were in a surreal painting - a sort of Alice in Wonderland type of place where reality was questionable. Unfortunately even a sharp pinch on the arm did not dispel this unreal dream.
About a mile down the road, the bedraggled foursome finally saw others. Men and women were warming themselves on rocks, wandering around looking tired and glazed, and talking quietly in small groups. Everyone looked at them quickly as they approached, and when they were not recognized, people looked away. Michael looked frantically around, didn't see any sign of Kim, Ed and Esther, and then tried to find someone in charge.
Julie and Sue were received with open arms. Apparently the thought of two young children going through the previous night made everyone forget their own ordeals. They were led into the community center, a large square, brick building which had about an inch and a half of fine, gray, silty mud on its floor. Since the sun was out, most people were outside, but Julie and Sue were led to a lit wood burning stove in the back, presumably with the intention of getting the children warm and dry. It was just what needed to be done - regardless of the temperature outside. The children must be kept warm and dry. The place smelled musty and moldy, but seemed to be the only structure that was still standing intact. Everyone scrambled to tuck the girls onto a bench near the heat, and pressed sweet rolls and orange juice into their grateful hands. They drank deeply, and reveled in the kindness of all of these strangers, who had been brought together for some strange purpose in this unreal place. Michael, comfortable that the girls were well taken care of, went quickly through the groups asking about the rest of the family. No one had seen them.
Everyone here was dressed. Julie felt uncomfortable in her flannel nightgown and her mother's polyester robe, hastily donned the night before just seconds before the escape. At least she had enough time to put on her red Converse tennis shoes, which she wouldn't go anywhere without. The rolls were wonderful, and they each ate three before becoming restless and too warm. They were being treated like babies, and they wanted to see what was going on outside. Julie wanted to find Michael, her source of familiarity and comfort, and she also wanted to see if he had found Kimmy, Esther and Ed. Having heard that they were missing, adults everywhere murmured kind words to Julie and Sue, not sure who was potentially alone. They both received lots of sad looks and pats on the head. Although these strangers were kind, and attention is always good, Julie didn't like their attitude. Her parents were fine - they were just not here yet. These people acted as if she were an orphan! They were feeling sorry for her! They’d see.
A young girl, about 16 or 17, wearing only what appeared to be one of her father's huge shirts and tennis shoes, offered them a cigarette. Julie and Sue giggled under their breath at the thought of themselves looking old enough to smoke, and politely declined the girl's offer. She did not seem to notice.
Staring almost right through them, she said, “We were just sitting in our kitchen eating steak, and all of a sudden the living room fell off.” She looked around dazedly, and lit another cigarette from the one she hadn’t yet finished. There was a large German Shepard with her who looked as shaken up as everyone here. He refused to leave her side.
“It was that quick! I grabbed my dog, and my parents and me ran up the mountain. We had an old lean-to that my dad had built when I was little, and it was high enough to stay pretty dry through the night. Where were you guys?” she asked, as if just noticing them, “what is your story?”
Julie surprised herself, and was angry that this girl who smoked and was with her parents remained dry all night. She blurted out, “We were in the rain! The water kept coming and coming, and we had to run up this really steep mountain, not even on the path I knew, and much farther than I had ever been. I used to hike up this path with my sister, who we can’t find, but we went up a different way. Her boyfriend carried me across the water on his back, and then we lost a sleeping bag. It was pitch dark, and we only had one flashlight, and I stepped on some cactus! Michael had some tarps and rope and one sleeping bag, and he tried to make a shelter, but I kept getting wet. It was so cold!” She spoke quickly, and was surprised that saying it out loud sort of made it more real.
“Wow, that sucks,” said the girl. She really meant it, and she lacked the syrupy, “you poor children” sympathy most of the others displayed. Julie and Sue felt more like people and less like children talking to this girl, and it felt good. Julie quickly forgave her for staying dry. She was their link, and they bonded as only disaster victims can.
Suddenly a rumor swept through the group of about 50 to 75 people. “The river's going to flood again! Run up the hills! The dam broke up by Drake, and another wall of water is coming! Quick!” About three or four people repeated the warnings, and much to Julie’s surprise, no one moved. No one even seemed alarmed. Everyone just looked around, exhausted, as if to say, “Who cares. If this one is going to take us out, let it. We're just too damn tired.” A few younger people scrambled out and up a small hill, but not anywhere near far enough up if another surge of water were to hit. Julie and Sue were among this group, but when they noticed the half-hearted effort of the others, they hesitated and began to look for Michael.
Nothing happened. The sun continued to shine, and the river continued gently winding around in its docile path. Again people congregated in and around the community center to wait for their next move, stricken and tired, watching the shadows grow longer and longer, and now getting hungry.
Julie and Sue found Michael, who was talking urgently to another young man, apparently one of the helicopter pilots. “I understand that it will take most of the day and part of the night to get these people out of here, but I don't think that anyone will argue about getting the girls out first. They are scared, tired and alone, and we need to get to a telephone to call Sue's parents, and get someone to take Julie home.”
Home? Home how? Home meant her Mom and Dad, and they weren’t here! Michael didn't know Julie had heard this exchange. She surprised him and grabbed his arm. She panicked.
“NO!” she called out. “I can't go home without my Mom and Dad; where are they? You said they would be here, and they're not here! No one has seen them, and everyone keeps saying they will show up soon, but they haven't!” She began to cry. This was no longer fun. It was getting too real, and too scary. She wanted this game to be over. She wanted her Daddy to come pick her up, smelling of pipe tobacco, and sing her a bedtime song so that she could go to sleep in her own bed. She wanted her Mama to hug her tight, and murmer how tall and beautiful she was becoming. She wanted Kimmy to be exasperated with her for trying on all of her grown-up shoes. She thought that Michael had just given up, and now he wanted to leave. She hated him.
Michael knelt down and gently said, “Julie, we are still stranded here. We can't go anywhere else. They have set up a shelter in Loveland, and they are starting to fly people out of here to go and get a warm meal and make telephone calls. We will go there and find your parents. Sue's parents are probably freaking out not knowing where she is, and we need to call them and tell them she's okay. There are no phones here, and we need to leave. It is getting late, and soon it will get chilly. Loveland is the best place for us right now. I just want you to be safe. I know you miss your family right now - Lord knows so do I - but everything will be okay.” Michael hugged her hard. It was all he could do not to allow himself to cry too. Even the helicopter pilot had tears in his eyes. Michael wanted this bad dream to end too, and his duty as protector of Julie was all that was keeping him afloat. “Be strong for her,” he told himself, “she's just a little girl.” He looked up at the pilot, who swiped his eyes and cleared his throat, embarrassed at what he had just witnessed, but in a position to help. Of course he would take the girls first.
It worked. Julie clung to Michael, letting his soothing words flow over her. She felt his fear too, and knew that he was afraid for her parents, but especially for Kimmy. He was going to be her brother, and he had saved her life. He knew what was the best. He was the grownup, but she was almost a grownup too. She sniffled once more, then pulled away, smiled up at him, and said simply, “Okay.” To herself she said, “I can be strong, I'm a big girl.”
It was about 5:30, and the helicopter that waited to whisk them away was nicknamed the Big Banana. People were napping all around on the quickly drying ground, and several groups had been hiking through all the reachable areas searching for others who were perhaps hurt or stranded. When they saw the huge army helicopter, with its double blades and very loud engines, the excitement built once again. As promised, Julie, Sue, Michael and Corky were some of the first on the helicopter, which held about 40 people. To the girls, it was fascinating. No one had ever seen a helicopter this big. Unfortunately the seats didn't face the windows, so they couldn't see out during the flight, but this was a real live flight, up high and for at least 20 minutes! Boy it was loud! And the rear end, the ramp they walked up to get on, was open to the sky! If they weren’t belted in, they could possibly slide right out the back! Julie was proud that she was much less scared than most of the grownups riding along with her.
They landed in the parking lot of the Loveland high school, which had been designated as a Red Cross assistance station for victims of the flood. By this time, President Ford had declared the Big Thompson Canyon a disaster area, and news of the flood was nationwide. None of this mattered to Julie and to Sue, who were still caught up in the newness of this experience, the special attention they seemed to be getting because they were so young, and their sheer exhaustion. It was exciting, but they just wanted to go home.
Michael scooted away to make the necessary phone calls, and found long lines for the telephones specially set up for this purpose. Corky was in charge of the two dazed girls. Thousands of people had donated clothing, toiletries, towels, blankets and much more for survivors of the flood who lost their homes. Julie only now realized that there were many people who lived in the canyon all year round, not just for summer weekends like her family. These people had lost everything. She began to think about all of her things at home, and to be sad for all of those who would have to start over. Sue and she felt guilty taking anything when they still had so much at home, but they were more than willing to change out of their dirty river-smelling nightgowns and into some jeans. The volunteers were trying to heap shampoo, soap, blankets and clothing on the girls, and Julie finally was persuaded to accept a Levi jean jacket that fit her perfectly. Just like the one Kimmy had. She couldn’t wait to show her sister.
The cafeteria was serving a hot spaghetti dinner, which all four of them ate eagerly when Michael rejoined them. Michael had slid easily into a position of authority, and throughout his dedicated search for Ed, Esther and Kim, he had helped countless other people find their loved ones. He was indispensable to the volunteer effort. He had spoken with Sue's parents, who were rushing from Denver to pick her up, and he had also spoken with Julie's extended family. They were rallying to put together a group who would make the trip to Loveland and pick her up. Unbeknownst to her however, they were making plans as to where she would stay, both for tonight and if, in the worst case scenario, forever.
Julie found a cot in the cafeteria, and, surrounded by “homeless,” finally allowed herself to think about and remember the previous night. She tried desperately to remember the last time she had seen her mother, father and sister, and wished it were more clear.
She had been playing inside the cabin with Sue, her best friend from school. It was spitting rain outside and just beginning to get dark. They were playing “Milly and Molly,” a sort of warped pretend game that could only come from pre-adolescent girl's minds. The general gist of the game was that Milly and Molly were sisters who alternated between being very fat, at which point the girls would stuff pillows and blankets under their nightgowns, to being very thin and glamorous. When they were thin, they had lots of jewelry and clothes and boyfriends, but then they would become fat again, and lose it all. Strange as it was, they were laughing - a lot - and having fun.
Julie's father, who knew that the best trout fishing was to be had during a summer rain at dusk, was out by the river with his fishing pole. Esther, his wife of twenty-six years, went out to bring him a snack. She was wearing her red jeans, which looked absolutely fabulous on her still girlish fifty-year-old frame, matching canvas boat shoes, and a light yellow sweater. She was hugging herself against the chill, a look which, to anyone who knows her, was as familiar as she was. They both stood at the water's edge peering into the river, which seemed to be swelling to a bursting point. Fascinating! Esther went in the cabin, at Ed's request, to get the girls to come and see this. This was exciting!
Julie, Sue, and Kimmy, who had been curled up in the living room reading a book, went out to see. It was not cold enough for coats, but Julie put on her mother's white polyester robe and her bright red Converse tennis shoes. The river was indeed rising, and Sue was scared. Julie was concerned because of Sue's fear, but she acted more afraid than she really was. A few reassuring words from her father were all she needed. Ed was a big man, and as usual, he was fully in command of all that was around him. If he said this was “neat” then it was. He always told the truth, and he was always right.
“The Big Thompson River has not flooded in the thirty-some-odd years I've been coming here, and it certainly isn't going to start now,” Ed said decisively, with his huge hand around Julie's shoulder. It was starting to get dark, and there was just enough light to see across the and down the river, which was churning up small whitecaps in its furious, swollen wake.
Kim and Michael took the girls up onto the bridge that joined the property with the highway. The bridge normally stood a good eighteen feet above the river. Julie and her daddy had fished from up there many times, and she and Kimmy had waded under it just as many. Julie become alarmed when she saw that distance cut to about six feet, but again, her father's words assured her. Sue was terrified, and wanted immediately to go into the house. Julie complied, after all it was a bit chilly, so they both went back in.
The next events were a blur, and try as she might, Julie could not clarify them in her mind. One minute her father was down by the river; then he was in the house on the ancient black rotary telephone, asking an unknown person what they could tell him about the water flowing down the Big Thompson River. After that she didn't know. Neither could she remember where her mother and Kimmy were. Sue, Julie, Michael and Corky were in the kitchen of the cabin, which had a screen door that led straight to the detached garage on the side farthest from the river. To the left of the door was the length of the cabin, and about 50 yards from that, the river. To the right, there was a slight graduated path that led at an angle to the outhouses, and then traversed gently up the mountain. This was the path Julie had climbed a million times with her sister.
The lady from next door, dressed warmly in a snowsuit, complete with a furry hood, walked by with a flashlight in one hand, and her dog on a tight leash in the other. She asked Michael what he thought.
Michael, standing in the doorway, opened the screen door and noticed that there were a few inches of water flowing by in the narrow path between the door and the garage. This was more than just a rainfall, he thought. The bend in the river had overflowed its banks, and was soon going to envelope the entire house. “I think we need to get out of here, is what I think!” He raised his voice, in order to be heard over the rushing river. It was now raining, and Michael became visibly alarmed.
The sound of the water was deafening. Michael dove over to his car, parked just on the other side of the garage, and grabbed two sleeping bags and a few tarps. The woman in snow boots and mittens started up the mountain path with her poodle. Within seconds, the few inches of water became a few feet, as the elbow of the river finally overflowed its banks and completely surrounded the house.
Corky grabbed Sue, who willingly jumped into his arms, and Michael shoved them out the door. Julie jumped onto Michael’s back, and he followed Corky. The water was chest high in a matter of seconds, and the current was stronger than any he had ever felt. Just past the garage, Michael tossed a sleeping bag to Corky, who was a few yards away standing on the path leading straight up the mountain. Where he stood should normally be about five feet above the ground, not to mention three hundred yards from the river, but it now looked like a riverbank. Corky caught the bag just as Michael lost his footing. Julie felt the shift in his weight, and instinctively thrust out her hand to grab the nearby telephone pole to steady them. It worked. Michael regained his balance, and Julie let go of the pole. Suddenly, not two seconds later, they all heard it crack and crash to the ground, swept quickly away by the supernatural current. They didn't even have time to appreciate their close call, for they were busy scrambling up the embankment to join Sue, Corky, the neighbor, and the poodle.
Now it was fully dark, even though only about a half an hour had passed. Michael turned and called into the inky blackness and raging river for Ed, Kim and Esther. His voice sounded feeble and lost in the awesome noise, and he knew he couldn't go back down there. All of them watched helplessly as one of the sleeping bags fell and rolled into the churning water just below them. Although it was dark, they all knew they had to reach still higher ground, for the river was almost over its newly formed bank, about six feet below where they stood. Michael and Corky forged their way up - straight up - not stopping to locate the path or worry about anything but that they were all together. Propane tanks could be heard exploding in the distance, as well as the cracking of structures and crashing of debris. The rain continued to hinder the foursome's slow ascent. And it was so very dark.
No one spoke during the harried, blind climb up, and Michael cursed himself for not grabbing the flashlight he kept in his glove compartment. The neighbor lady had the only flashlight, and she was quite unwilling to relinquish control of it. They quickly, out of necessity, established a rhythm of feeling for footfalls, however, even in the pitch black, and soon it became almost unnecessary to see.
Finally, as if by unspoken agreement, they stopped. The river was still very loud, but the sound was far below them, and was muffled by the darkness. The old woman turned off the flashlight, to conserve batteries, and the dark was overwhelming. It was so complete that you saw lights out of the corner of your eyes that would disappear when you tried to catch them head on. This was “you can't see your hand in front of your face” darkness. Still the sound of splintering wood and exploding tanks continued, and while they caught their breath, Michael and Corky discussed how best to spend the night, for that is what it was looking like they would have to do.
Julie, Sue and the warm neighbor sat on a fallen tree, huddled together under a tarp. The idea was to try to stay warm and try not to get any wetter, while Michael and Corky worked at tying up the remaining tarp and laying out the solitary sleeping bag for shelter from the incessant rain and comfort on the cold ground for the duration of the night. Time held no meaning for any of them, but the men were smart enough to know that darkness had only recently descended, and it was going to be a very long night.
Sue ended up sandwiched between Michael and Corky, and Julie was nestled
down between Michael's legs. This was the only way they could fit on the solitary
sleeping bag, but at least all of them could lie down. Although the rain was
no longer torrential, it still fell steadily, and although the tarp, bag and
body warmth helped, they still were cold and shivering. Julie ended up right
underneath the hood of the square rain tarp, and several times, after it filled
with rain, it dumped buckets of water on her. She was too cold to complain.
She felt there was no reason to bother anyone, and she knew that if she spoke
she would cry.
No one knew if anyone got any sleep that night, but if they did, it was fitful at best. There was no talking once they were settled, and everyone spent the night alone with their own thoughts. Michael worried about Kimmy, and wished like mad that she were with him. His every waking moment up until then had been spent protecting her, planning their future, and this was not what he had in mind for announcing their news. Julie and Sue, separated, didn't have each other to turn to, and they both found it hard to think about anything except how cold and wet they were.
Corky went over and over in his mind the decision he and Ed had made to stay an extra night at the cabin. Obviously it was a mistake, and he felt guilty. He wanted to back up and tell his friend he was wrong, they should head back to the City. It was all his fault that they were on the wet side of a mountain, protecting two freezing girls from the elements, and not home in their warm safe beds. He forbade himself from thinking the worst about Ed and his wife and daughter, especially for Julie’s sake..
Finally it began to get light. Everyone had indeed dozed, for they were awakened not only by the first rays of sunlight, but also by the complete absence of sound. As the sun rose, the sky became clear and summertime blue. The rain had stopped, except for a few droplets falling from the drenched trees, and the mountain looked fresh and clean as it became lighter. It smelled as it does after a light summer rain, and there was no indication of the downpour from the night before except the sodden ground. They wrung out their clothes as best they could, folded up their home for the night, and began the steep hike down, hopeful, and wondering if this wasn't just all a bad dream.
They all marveled at the trek they had made the night before; it had been steep, long and quite treacherous. All the way down, they were anxious and fearful for what they would find and how things would look. But no one could have prepared them for the furious rearrangement nature had performed with the landscape, from river level up past the road, on up the canyon walls.
Then they had ended up here, in the Loveland high school, dressed in strange but kind people's donated clothing, eating spaghetti in a school cafeteria, and struggling with their fears and exhaustion.
Sue's parents showed up within hours, and after much hugging, kissing and fluttering, they hustled Sue off to her warm, safe house, where her sister, brother and bedroom waited for her. Her dad was not a bit mad about losing his suitcase, and Julie felt like they were so anxious to see their daughter safe and sound, that they didn't even acknowledge her. They were curt with Michael and Corky, who had in reality saved their daughter's life, but again Michael's knowledge of human nature assured him that they were looking for someone to blame. Sue waved goodbye to Julie, but it was rather awkward. They both got the distinct feeling they would not be seeing each other anytime soon, and what could they say?
Julie was now alone. Michael and Corky were still here, but she had no peers with whom to share. There were other children at the high school, but they were toddlers or babies, really, and they were with their parents. The girl who had offered her a cigarette was nowhere to be seen, and Julie fleetingly wondered where the dog was. She was just very, very tired. Two nights before the flood, she and Sue had stayed up well into the night giggling and talking and playing, as one does on vacation sleep-overs, and the night before was spent on the side of a wet mountain, in a rainstorm, struggling to keep warm. She had spent all of the time in-between running on nervous energy and adrenaline, so it was no wonder she was tired. She wanted her Mama.
After what seemed a long time after Sue left, a crowd of Julie's relatives appeared. Jim and Bob, two of her mother's nephews had made the two hour trip from Denver, and her mother's sister and brother, Julia, and Augie. Aunt “J,” as Julia was called, was a sight for sore eyes, and it was into her arms Julie fell the second she saw them. Michael spoke with the men, and after discussions about where Julie would be that night, he hugged her goodbye, kissed her cheek, and told her he had to remain at the school where he was needed. Michael felt that this was the best place for him to remain until word was heard about Julie's family. Even though Julie hated leaving him, she understood. At that moment, she loved him for it. He would find her parents, and she knew he would do everything in his power to find Kimmy. Corky, it seemed, had faded into the background, and Julie was never really quite sure when she said her goodbyes to him.
Julie slept not only the entire way home, but all that night and well into the morning. Upon awakening, she didn't quite recognize where she was. Upon going downstairs, she noticed that there were more than a few family members gathered together, and they all stopped talking when she entered the room. The next couple of weeks, unbeknownst to her, everyone was very careful to keep her away from the news, especially from the growing list of victims the flood had claimed forever. Speculation, as time went on, was not very positive about her family either, and talk became serious about where this eleven year old little girl would live if she was indeed now an orphan.
The bodies of Julie's father, mother and sister were soon and inevitably found. Edward Kronenberger was found first, and after what seemed a long time, Kimmy and Esther. They were only three of what was to amount to over 150 lives claimed by the raging waters of the Big Thompson Flood that July 31, 1976. Some people were never found. Julie, orphaned at eleven, was absorbed into her extended family.
Although no one will ever really know what happened, Julie has always been convinced that the lives of her family were claimed by the Big Thompson Flood right in the beginning of the disaster, and that they suffered little if at all. She remembers that the way the cabin was laid out and the way the water so quickly buried it, there was no other way. She, Sue, Michael and Corky were just in the right place, at the right time, or rather in a better place at the right time.
Every once in a while, even now, she has dreams about her sister playing her guitar, with her long red hair falling down over one shoulder, her father smoking his pipe or singing her a bedtime song, or her mother gazing lovingly at her, pushing the hair out of her eyes and saying “I love you” in her gentle way. All three of these truly amazing people had guided her into her eleventh year with such love and structure, that Julie will always have that reservoir of strength upon which to draw. And as a result, she has prevailed. She also knows that these are more than dreams; that she has three guardian angels who love her, listen to her, and will always be with her, for eternity.
Julie A. Kronenberger