# # A Flood of Memories - The Big Thompson Flood of 1976 - Part 2

Brother, I Can See Your Skull.

Brother, I Can See Your Skull. - The Coreyshead Blog

A Flood of Memories – Part 2 of 3
The Big Thompson Flood of 1976

Big Thompson River Canyon, 1976 flood.

A car peeping out from its impromptu grave – Ernie Leyba/Denver Post File

(continued from: A Flood of Memories – Part 1 The Big Thompson Flood of 1976)

The next day dawned and, from my perspective, nothing was different – but it was.

We had no power and there was a queer smell in the air, a smell of mud and propane. After being told of the evening’s events, my mom allowed my brother and I to walk down to the corner above the falls with the stern admonishment to avoid the edge of the washed out road. We were to go no further than the falls.

Later that day we learned why my mom had been so adamant that we explore no more than what we could see from the road: two of of our neighbors had investigated the scene below the falls already that morning and had reported finding, among other things, a nude woman asleep in the silt.
Except, of course, she wasn’t asleep.

My brother and I walked down the street marveling at what we could see of the scarred valley through the tops of cottonwood trees thick with summer leaves. The radically broadened and unrecognizable river bed ran at barely a trickle.

We rounded the corner at the Rim Rock House, the old Dam Store above the falls, and stopped, stunned at the sight of the eaten out road and the lack of a bridge. The banks of the river as far as the eye could see were scrubbed clean of all but dirt and rocks or laden with silt and debris. Bent cars and splintered trees protruded brokenly from the concrete channel of the diversionary flume on our side of the falls.

The other side of the falls, once lightly forested with playful spillways one could sometimes ride inner tubes down, was scoured down to the rock. Gone was the vegetation who’s canopy of green shielded you from the worst of the summer’s sun. Below in the valley was more debris. The realization I’d awakened to an alternate reality grew.

We ached to explore more but were daunted enough by the blasted vista to obey our mother, if only this once. We walked back to the house full of childish imaginings and still not able to grasp the full extent of what we’d seen, what it meant.

More proof of my mother’s wisdom, later that week, our 70+ year old, cantankerous, next-door neighbor – and one of my best friends at the time – took some visitors down to the falls for a tour. Aged but still spry, he let his confidence get the best of him and, in his eagerness to act as guide, got too close to the edge of the washed out road. The earth crumbled beneath his weight and he fell 12 feet or more onto the rocks below, shattering his pelvis. It was big blow for a man of his age and his level of health faltered considerably during the fight to heal. He and his wife moved away quite soon after, much to my dismay, and I only saw them once again.

The floodwaters carried on past the falls the night of the flood, killing and destroying even after leaving the canyon. Flooding ditches well into town, the waters slowly spread out and failed among the open lands to the east. Some of the flood’s victims were found 25 miles away from where they’d been swept up.

President Ford declared the entire area a disaster and the National Guard were called in. Taking over a long fallow field at the end of our road, they set up an impromptu staging area for their Chinook helicopters. Helicopters were now the only realistic way in and out of the canyon for supplies and rescue, the flood having washed out great chunks of the highway. We saw the Chinook’s strange silhouettes in the air nearly every day for weeks: whop-whop-whop-whop-whop-whop.

State Troopers set up a checkpoint in the highway adjacent to this field – our intersection – to forestall any attempt at looting or sight-seeing. Anyone entering the area had to show I.D. proving themselves an official or resident. One time mom managed to drive into town without her driver’s license. While the first, familiar trooper had waved us on when we left, the fellow there when we returned was having none of it. Mom was embarrassed as hell and really had to pour on the charm to get us past the guy. Having two dippy kids with her who could easily recite their address probably helped our cause. I thought queuing up in our car for the trooper every time we wanted to leave or return was kind of cool but I am not certain my parents enjoyed it as much.

Initially, we were not allowed to go to town. Most of the roads were blocked or out and there were bodies being found all up and down the river, whose banks the road tended to follow. There was also the fear of looting and curiosity seekers. Eventually – was it a week or so? – the way was cleared and we made that first trip into town. There were detours where the road had washed out or was cluttered with debris but, surprisingly, much was still traversable and had already been cleared.

Everywhere you looked for those first eight miles or so, every familiar section of road was rendered surreal by the water and its leavings – a new, twisted landscape, blasted out of and sprayed over the old one.

It was surprising but not at all rare to see areas, where there once had been buildings, scoured clear of any signs of habitation while, right next door or across the river, the damage was restricted to a few feet of deposited silt or less. Aerial shots of the trail of destruction made terrible sense of this seemingly random hand of destruction: the path taken by the river was straight ahead and damn the torpedoes. Unless forcefully redirected, it bulled through whatever stood in front of it, regardless of the river’s old bed. Meanwhile, that which stood not in its direct path was spared the full measure of its wrath.

So much of what had been destroyed that night should never have been alongside the river in the first place. Campgrounds and trailer parks, some of them with single and double-wides called permanent home by entire families, speckled the low areas along the banks of the river. All these fragile structures and any recalcitrant campers suffered major damage if not complete obliteration that night.

One of these parks was scooped up in the flood’s ungentle hands and shoved with indiscriminate disinterest over a bridge and into a stand of trees some 100 yards away; a corner in the river that was too sharp for the raging, debris laden waters to make. Cars, trailers, trees, wood, clothing, furniture, paper, and billboards had been strained from the water by the trees. Single-wide trailers, bashed, bent, and split open like half eaten, hollow bananas jutted up out of the stand of trees at 45 degree angles. It was a blatant, ugly spectacle along the road to town. One that you passed on a long, elevated corner, affording you an extended and unfortunate period of contemplation as you approached and then passed it. As the weeks wore on, this tangle began to exude an odor that left little to the imagination. With such widespread destruction, only so much could be cleaned up at once, and this horrible reminder of what we’d suffered remained extant for months.

Big T Canyon Flood, 1976

Aftermath of the 1976 flood – Steve Larson/Denver Post File

Just up the road from here, a small, local market decorated to look like an old time, western fort lay, like so many other places, three foot deep in deposited silt and debris. Small trees gnarled up out of the mud, their trunks wrapped around the store’s gas pumps. We later learned the tangle held a body, too.

My cousins lived just back up from here, on Glade Road. On the night of the flood, they were drawn from their beds by the noise, as my family had been, their own home also well out of the water’s reach. Walking down as close to the river as they dare the night of the flood, they witness neighbors clinging to trees to escape the rising waters. Already battered and cold, some slowly lose their grip and succumb to the waters, family and neighbor crying out at them to the last to just hang on a little while longer.

My aunt was head R.N. at the local hospital in those days and, of course, saw and heard more gory details than most. Hardened by her job, she was not averse to sharing a shocking tidbit now and then. One thing she related that I’ll never forget is, as the weeks passed, how the searchers had to use dogs to locate the victim’s bodies. How they had to prod with long sticks the things they found in order to determine whether they were flesh or wood.

One night my aunt brought a couple of EMT friends over to dinner. They’d been in the canyon the night of the flood and had almost lost their lives. After dinner, the talk got around to their experience. One remained quiet on the subject but the other seemed eager to relate the story:

The afternoon of the flood, they’d ended up in the canyon on a routine call, then found themselves working as part of the team sent out to warn people of the imminent flash flooding. As the situation worsens, they are ordered to skedaddle back down the canyon to Loveland. Unfortunately, the decision comes a bit late and they find themselves racing rising waters down a part of the canyon known as the “narrows.” Here, the walls of the canyon close in, forcing the road and the river closer together down a twisting, turning corridor of stone. Going as fast as they dare down the treacherously wet highway’s curves, the waters close in and they feel themselves borne up, helpless.

The highway disappears from view, obscured by the rushing waters and now they are bobbing around – now sideways, now backwards – the ambulance shuddering as it bashes against floating trees, bounces off rocks, and snags on other debris. The cab slowly fills with cold, muddy water and, as the vehicle wallows, both men know, at any moment, the ambulance will heel over or sink to be crushed in the tumult.

Capricious, the rush and tumble wedges their vehicle into a crevice in the canyon wall. They sit, stunned, for the merest of seconds, not daring to breathe. Then the passenger, the man telling the story to us and closest to the potential safety of the canyon wall just outside his window, cries that it is now or never. Rolling down his window, he clambers up and out to a rocky shelf abreast the ambulance’s window and turning, helps the driver to do the same. They act only just in time. The ambulance tumbles from beneath the feet of the driver as he pushes off to the wet stone of the shelf.

Its lights still strobing red and blue, the ambulance is pulled down and broken by the flood. Broken as a child might break a cracker. They see the two parts bob up out of the froth, the separate halves nose and butt down, respectively, and then it’s gone. Just gone. Gone as if it never even existed.

They spend the night trapped on the wall, at first watching, helpless as many a living person flashes by in the grip of the river, then stuck in there in the dark: wet, cold, and shell shocked. When dawn finally comes, they climb their way up and out of the canyon, then down to safety.

It is clear the effect on these two men – men, who as EMT’s are no strangers to suffering, mayhem, and tragedy – is deep, permanent, and profound. If I recall correctly, the driver, he who sat quietly as the story was told, soon after quit his job for less emotionally challenging work, siting that night in the canyon as reason.

Continued: A Flood of Memories – Part 3 – The Big Thompson Flood of 1976

Part 1: A Flood of Memories – Part 1 – The Big Thompson Flood of 1976


Tags: , , ,

4 Responses to “A Flood of Memories – Part 2 of 3
The Big Thompson Flood of 1976”

  1. […] Continued: A Flood of Memories – Part 2 The Big Thompson Flood of 1976 […]

  2. […] (continued from: A Flood of Memories – Part 2 The Big Thompson Flood of 1976) […]

  3. Mary says:

    Enjoyed reading your blog about the Big Thompson…I was a teenager back then and remember it well and the flooding this week has brought back all those memories.

Leave a Reply