Department

When the Rivers Rise

As the Denver Fire Department’s swift-water rescue teams gear up for another spring of snowmelt runoff, they’re hoping for the best—and preparing for the worst.

April 2011

The ground was already saturated from snowmelt on May 14, 2007, when an evening thunderstorm opened up over Denver, dumping more than an inch of rain in an hour. The clay-dense Colorado soil couldn’t soak it up, so the water pooled, then flowed, then raged. Within minutes, I-25 was flooded. People stood on top of their cars in some parts of town to escape the water. A police officer nearly drowned attempting to rescue a civilian. A wheelchair-bound man was swept off the Cherry Creek Trail. And Elsha Guel was clinging to a concrete barrier as an inescapable current swirled around her. She’d been out for her evening walk along Lakewood Gulch, pushing her two-year-old son in his stroller. The creek, which had started out low that day, rose so quickly that it ripped the stroller—and her son—from her arms as she waited out the rain in a pedestrian tunnel. It would take two days to find the boy’s partially buried body in the mud of the Platte River.

In spring, days like this are all too common. After a winter of powder in the high country, the snow melts and fills creek beds downstream. And Denver is definitely downstream. The slightest bit of rain or melt can turn a trickle into a river, a dry patch into a lake. Few people realize that slow-moving water, even just a few inches, can knock you off your feet. That one foot of water can float a car. That two feet—the depth of a bathtub—can turn a bus into a runaway boat. “The problem with swift water here is it’s easy to ignore,” says Craig Hilton, an 18-year veteran of the Denver Fire Department (DFD), which runs all local rescues. “It moves at just over one mile per hour. You can walk faster than that.” But swift water is unrelenting. “If [it] runs up against a wall, the force moves it around the structure,” Hilton says. “You can’t stop it.”

Every spring, the Platte River begins rising—its flow might double, or triple—all the way through June. When a 911 call comes into a fire station, a water rescue squad arrives at the scene within minutes. Working quickly, a few rescuers look for hazards and try to spot the victim. Other team members search the banks, strategize rescue options, and see where they might contain the victim downstream.

Most water rescues involve ropes and throw bags; rescuers want to avoid putting another body, another potential victim, into the water. Their protocol is, reach (using a hand or tool); throw (landing a throw bag near a victim); row (using a flotation device or boat); and finally, go (swimming to a victim). “Rescues are not pretty,” Hilton says. “You’re grabbing anything from clothing to a handful of hair.”

Hilton has spent countless hours biking around Denver to identify urban water hazards; he’s even created a website, www.swiftwaterresponse.com, to catalog his finds. In an urban setting, Hilton says, a rescuer has to worry about hazards such as antiquated sewer drains that create whirlpools, broken dams, and flooded pedestrian trails.

Each year, the team trains for the unpredictable flash floods that plague Denver, all while hoping people will stay off the creekside bike paths and floodplains when the water is high, and that history won’t repeat itself. Yet it often does. Despite being a land-locked city, Denver’s past revolves around water-related disasters. In 1864, Cherry Creek flooded, which split the town in two, destroyed buildings, and killed 19 people. Thirty-two people died during a flood 22 years later. A 1965 flood damaged 600 homes and cost $540 million. The Highland area originally emerged after people began to settle there because, well, it was higher—and therefore safer—than the rest of the city.

Today, more than 2,000 Denverites live in a floodplain, an area that is low, prone to collecting water, or near a moving stream. (The Pepsi Center and Elitch Gardens both carry flood insurance because of their proximity to Cherry Creek and the Platte River.) And although dams—most notably Chatfield Dam in southwest Denver—hold back the most disastrous of floods, the structures are never totally reliable, because water can’t be stopped, at least not completely.

One deadly example of swift water’s impact happened on August 17, 2000. Firefighter Robert Crump and his partner were directing traffic near East 50th Avenue and Colorado Boulevard. An afternoon thunderstorm had flooded the busy roadway just before the evening commute. Crump wasn’t dressed for water rescue, but the traffic control and flooded roadway were routine until he and his partner spotted Loretta Martinez clinging to a metal pole in a nearby ditch. Her car had stalled and she was trying to make her way to safety when the fast-moving water pulled her back. Crump went over to help her, but an underwater culvert (a pipe that carries water) created a funnel that sucked him below the roadway. His body was recovered hours later. The 37-year-old father of three was Denver’s second firefighter to die on duty in two decades.

It was a difficult lesson for the department, one that still resonates. Hilton wasn’t working that night, but he visited the scene after the accident: “I crawled into the culvert that he died in,” Hilton says. “I never want another person to go through that.” He can’t help but wonder if the outcome would’ve been different had Crump been trained in urban water rescue and thus had recognized the danger the culvert presented.

Since Crump’s death, Hilton has worked with the department’s squad of specially trained water rescuers. He was the first certified swift-water rescue instructor; now there are three. He cites everyday conditions that seem harmless but that could contribute to more casualties: After Crump died, the city placed a grate over the 50th Avenue culvert, but Hilton says this could snare a victim like hair in a shower drain. The gondola locks on Cherry Creek—used to lift boats down the waterway in the summer months—fill up during a flood and act like a vault that could trap a person. And the dams on Cherry Creek have tines that, during a flood, sit just inches below the surface and can snag clothing.

The bigger problem may be the economy, which has drained the DFD’s training funds, so on any given day, about one-third of on-duty firefighters won’t be trained in water rescue. “We want every firefighter to be able to look at a body of water and know how it’s going to act,” DFD captain Greg Bixley says. “But things are strapped so tightly, we are probably going to suspend the [training] program for a year.” The squad is watching this year’s massive mountain storms and bracing for the worst. After all, the worst has happened before, and it probably will again. “The snowpack is up over 100 percent,” Hilton says. “Depending on how quick it melts, it could be an interesting spring.”

Natasha Gardner is 5280’s associate editor. E-mail her at [email protected].