Photo: Getty Images

Nine people died in the flooding between September 11 and 17, 2013, one of the worst natural disasters in Colorado history. Up to 19 inches of rain fell in the state during that time: More than 1,800 houses were destroyed, and another 19,000 structures were damaged. For the people who lived on a sliver of U.S. 34 a dozen miles west of Loveland, the floods were nothing short of catastrophic. These are their stories.

By Robert Sanchez
Photos by Matt Nager
September 2014

He wakes in his bed. Both eyes blink open as the fan swirls overhead. Raindrops streak across the windows in the house on the hill. Tim Brady rises and settles his bare feet on the hardwood floor. It’s 5 a.m.

Today is Tim and his wife, Pam’s, anniversary. Twenty-one years on this 12th day of September. Pam’s up early, too, and the two jokingly congratulate each other on sticking it out this long. How have they done it? They are both astonished and humbled. They love each other, as only a couple who’s survived raising children and dealing with debt and the vagaries of a long life together can.

They’re getting by these days. Pam’s got a job as a customer service representative for First National Bank roughly 12 miles away in Loveland. Tim works on a crew for the city’s street department and splits time as an assistant chief with the Big Thompson Canyon Volunteer Fire Department. Fifty-one, with a thick, blond moustache and tattoos on his upper arms, he’s thin and gentle. Still, there are times—when he’s stressed, when the guys at work are busting balls, when he’s cracking a joke—his native New York accent returns. Faaaaaak.

Tim showers, then dresses in blue jeans and a long-sleeve shirt. He looks out the kitchen window. Five days of clouds and heavy rain. “This sucks,” he mutters.

The phone rings. It’s the fire department chief. Rockslide. Big boulders. No one’s going far today. Tim hangs up and tells Pam the news.

He makes a call to his boss in Loveland and says he won’t be in. He pulls on his black rubber boots and grabs a coat, a department radio, and the keys to his flat-bed pickup, which is parked on the dirt drive out front. Tim tugs a fire department cap low over his forehead and asks Pam if she wants to come along.

Rain splashes onto the truck’s windshield as Tim and Pam swoop down the muddy trail that leads from their house and drops onto U.S. 34 inside the canyon. They roll one mile west to Station 7 and get the department’s Jeep, then make their way another three miles toward Station 8, the department’s two-story headquarters just east of Drake. Shredded leaves are everywhere; mud and small rocks and pieces of tree limbs are scattered on the rain-slicked asphalt. Along the highway—just a few dozen yards below the Jeep’s right side—lies Cedar Cove, a collection of 12 or so houses and cottages tucked beneath a canopy of green. Down an embankment and through a thicket of trees, Pam can see the river transforming. Typically, it snakes through Cedar Cove; now another smaller stream hooks its way around the neighborhood. A section of the overflowing river pushes against an embankment that holds up the highway. A small stretch of the westbound lane is beginning to crumble.

Station 8 sits in a depression 100 feet from the river and is the biggest and newest of the canyon’s volunteer stations along the highway. When Tim and Pam arrive, a few volunteers are already gathered inside, including Jenica Butts, a former Big Thompson Fire EMT who’d recently moved to Glenwood Springs and is visiting friends near Tim’s house. Tim tells Jenica he’s putting her on call in case there’s an emergency on their end.

Tim and Pam trade out the Jeep for Engine 276, one of the department’s diesel-powered wildland brush trucks. It’s got a 200-gallon water tank, but as the couple pulls out and moves east, 276 hardly feels invincible. In the lowlands east of the station, roiling water splashes onto the road. The charging river sounds like a freight train. Tim drives over a snapped power line in the road and dodges the debris from the rockslide.

Five miles east of Station 8, a section of U.S. 34 is giving out. Tim grabs a roll of pink tape, ties it to a guardrail, and pulls it across the highway near a white clapboard building at the edge of the Big Thompson River. He hustles back to the engine and flops down next to Pam. Water drips off his cap brim. Tim’s never seen the river this high. The water’s rising to the bridges behind him. Tim imagines the 1976 Big Thompson Flood that killed 144 people and made national headlines—a reminder of the instability that comes with living in the canyon. An explosion of water; that’s what witnesses had called it. Twelve to 14 inches of rain in a few hours, then a tidal wave. Standing near the water on this morning, though, Tim sees the river as a never-ending torrent. The Big Thompson is overflowing slowly, pushing toward the highway. Soon it will strip the land, inch by inch, like a steam shovel.

Joyce Kilmer hears a knock at her door in Cedar Cove around 8 o’clock that morning. When she opens it, a volunteer firefighter tells her she needs to move to higher ground. The river’s splitting, the water’s rising, the neighborhood’s too dangerous.

Seventy-six, with short blond hair, Joyce has lived here for a decade and knows the topography better than most. She lives on one of the highest points in the neighborhood, a slice of upland that went untouched in ’76. On an average day, the house sits at least 40 feet higher than the river.

Still, Joyce listens to the firefighter at her door and agrees to evacuate. Reverse 911 calls are going out to residents throughout the canyon. Joyce grabs a camera, opens her back door, and steps onto a flagstone slab. Below a redwood picnic table, the river’s spilling over its banks, plowing through a grove of pine and aspen trees: bright green leaves against the silver foam of the water. Joyce takes a photo.

Wearing flip-flops, she pulls her Hyundai Elantra across the wet road and parks it on even higher ground, near her neighbor Evelyn Starner’s home. Evelyn’s 79, a widow and nursing home aide, tall and thin with a head of white hair. She lives on the embankment, along the highway, in a rental she shares with her son. When Joyce pulls up, Evelyn’s inside her house, and Joyce knocks on the door. Evelyn’s alone this morning—her son is stranded in Loveland—but Evelyn doesn’t seem intimidated by the situation. She and Joyce share hellos, commiserate about the weather. Evelyn invites Joyce inside.

Hours later, water’s overflowing the banks along the river’s main path through Cedar Cove, but the offshoot doesn’t seem like much more than a creek. It’s ankle-deep, at most, on the road below. Definitely survivable, they think. The rain doesn’t let up. A moat of river water builds around a neighbor’s house as Joyce and Evelyn wait and watch from their perch. To them, the river still seems so far away.

Wesley Sladek’s speeding down the highway in a Chevy Lumina with his grandmother in the passenger seat. In the rush to evacuate their houses a half-mile downriver from Cedar Cove, she’d forgotten her heart medication and hadn’t realized it until she, Wesley, his mother, and his brother had made it to Drake, five miles west of home. But there was no telling how long they’d be holed up, how long they’d be away from home without the prescription. Wesley volunteered to take his grandmother back to her house and find the meds.

Wesley’s 24, a community college graduate who works at a fossil and gem shop in Estes Park. He’s just enrolled at Colorado State University, where he plans to study biomedical engineering and electrical engineering. He’s lanky, with closely cropped hair, and has the composure of a tax accountant—the kind of guy who analyzes, who does the math, who considers all options. Right now, as he and his grandmother turn left down Grouse Hollow Lane, the options aren’t looking good.

Wesley is the fifth generation of his family to live in the canyon. His great-grandfather once built homes along the river; his great-grandmother’s ashes were spread nearby on rocks near a meadow of grass and flowering trees. His mother grew up here and was away on a trip in 1976 when the flood drowned one of her cousins. Wesley and his brother knew the story—they knew all the stories here—but the river had otherwise been a welcoming place. They splashed in it as children, fished in its cool waters, while their grandmother watched from her backyard.

Wesley and his grandmother pull up to her house around noon. By then he’s certain they can’t return to Drake. The highway seems unstable; the river is too unpredictable now. They park in the driveway, find her heart medication inside the house, then drive about 500 feet to the small hill on which Wesley lives. A quick look around tells him this would have to be a biblical flood for the river to reach them. His grandmother takes the living room couch; Wesley will stay in his room, just on the other side of the garage.

Cell phone reception is notoriously bad in the canyon, and Wesley isn’t able to reach his mother to tell her his plan. He and his grandmother will hunker down, Wesley thinks, and get out as soon as they can.

Tim has directed at least 10 people out of the area by 1 p.m.; the section of U.S. 34 two miles east of Cedar Cove continues to disintegrate. The highway is now impassable heading east. There’s confusion about possible evacuation routes, with the rockslide still blocking part of the highway to the west. It’s a desperate situation for Tim and the residents left behind on what’s becoming, essentially, an island.

Dispatch in Loveland is bombarded with emergency calls. Downed trees. Cars pulled into the water. A family from California is trapped in a cabin and needs a rescue line and a basket to get them across the river.

Tim convinces dozens more people to leave their houses and seek shelter on higher ground. He pulls Engine 276 to the highway shoulder, leaves Pam inside, and climbs over a small wire fence overlooking Cedar Cove’s southern edge.

A man named Mike Horn is on the deck of a small two-story house “Are you guys OK?”
“For now”
in the distance. Standing behind Mike are his wife, Flo, and his neighbor Patty Goodwine. The river’s swelling between the house and Tim’s position near the highway; Tim’s on high land and can only hear the water’s roar. He waves his hands above his head.

“Are you guys OK?” Tim hollers.

“For now,” Mike yells back.

Tim takes a few more steps into the wet field. He’s watching Mike, not paying attention to what’s in front of him when he slips on the grass and falls hard on his back. Tim pulls himself up, focuses his eyes. One more step, and he would have dropped 20 feet into the water.


On September 12 and 13, 2013, the Big Thompson River decimated the Cedar Cove neighborhood west of Loveland. 1. Early on Thursday the 12th, a rockslide blocks part of U.S. 34. 2. Another part of U.S. 34 east of Cedar Cove starts to disintegrate. 3. The swollen river washes away Joyce Kilmer’s house the night of the 12th. 4. Mike and Flo Horn seek safer ground at Patty Goodwine’s house until it is swept away. 5. Wesley Sladek rescues Flo Horn as she clings to an elm tree around 2 a.m. Friday. 6. Nearly all of U.S. 34 above Cedar Cove is washed away early Friday. 7. At about 1 that afternoon, a National Guard Black Hawk evacuates Flo and several others.

Tim and Pam came to Loveland from New Jersey in 1993 to escape big-city life. They sent their kids to the public schools, where they were active in music. Like lots of people who eventually come here, though, Tim and Pam discovered away wasn’t nearly far enough. So they followed U.S. 34 west into Big Thompson Canyon. They built their house from scratch. They raised dogs and shot rifles, set up a hot tub on the backyard deck. They popped beers together after work and watched the sun turn liquid on the horizon. On a whim, Tim joined the Big Thompson Canyon Volunteer Fire Department in 2004. For nine years, he was one man on an 18-person crew charged with covering roughly 100 square miles of canyon. He helped rescue lost hikers, put out lightning-strike fires on Storm Mountain, pulled crashed vehicles from the river. The testosterone and adrenaline running through him on calls made him feel superhuman. Tim was smart and dependable—he’d been named the department’s rookie of the year and was once its firefighter of the year—and he made assistant chief in 2012. Soon after, “Canyon Two,” his radio call sign, became ubiquitous on the roads between Loveland and Estes Park. Tim became a strategy guy, the one helping direct radio chatter, putting boots where they were needed. He loved the responsibility—the joy he got when his crew helped another human being—even though it didn’t pay him anything. Still, every once in a while, he felt a longing. Nothing could match being on the front line.

Joyce and Evelyn wait out the storm for a few more hours at Evelyn’s place. Around dusk they decide they should go down to Joyce’s house and prepare it for possible flooding.

Joyce never considered what it would take for her to abandon this home. Long ago, it became her hope, the hideaway where she rebuilt her life. After three grown children and a 31-year marriage that ended in divorce, this was where she had come to start again. The house was in need of a renovation when she bought it a decade earlier: 1,000 square feet, nearly three acres of land, a small pond, and five 40-foot elm trees on one side of the house. There was also a little two-stall horse barn out back. Most people only would have seen the inevitable work to be done, but Joyce was an artist by training. And like all good art, this house was open to interpretation. Her two sons, her grandson, and her ex helped tear out the shag carpeting, refinish the wood floors, build a new kitchen, and install French doors at the back entry. Joyce moved in her great-great-grandmother’s 133-year-old bedroom set, and she hung her great-uncle’s military cavalry sword in the living room. Then the group transformed the barn into an art studio.

She found refuge there. Joyce painted flowers, images of cowboys, and portraits of her grandchildren. When she wasn’t painting, she’d tend to her lilies and tulips and pick beets and carrots and radishes. During winters, she fed a red fox that chased mice across her property. She took photos. One winter, she made one into her Christmas card: snow lumped like cotton on the hedges out front, on the trees just outside her door, on the roof of her studio.

Joyce parks her car and puts on a sweat suit and tennis shoes when she gets inside. The river’s still charging out back, but it doesn’t seem to be rising. Joyce picks up her driver’s license, a credit card, a winter coat, a poncho, some cash, a tube of toothpaste, and a block of cheddar cheese. She takes some of her artwork—six oil paintings, a sculpture she made of her grandson holding a teddy bear—collects a strongbox with her birth certificate and jewelry, and grabs her family’s 19th-century Bible, 13 three-ring binders of genealogical research, and some photos. She stuffs them into her car. Joyce stacks the rest of her artwork like pizza boxes on a table in her art studio.

When she finishes, Joyce decides it’s time she and Evelyn return to higher ground. She drives her car the short distance back up to Evelyn’s. They have chili for dinner and wonder when the rain will let up. Evelyn says Joyce should sleep on the living room couch tonight and plan to check on her house in the morning.

Tim moves more residents long after it turns dark, and then he returns home. He goes through his list of those in the canyon. There are 85 people stuck along this stretch of road. Many of them are elderly. One young woman has a heart condition.

The power goes out around 10 p.m., and Tim fires up an oil lamp on the kitchen table. He takes off his boots but leaves on his dirt-brown socks. Pam offers him some ravioli, but he’s not hungry. Tim pores over his map while the department radio chatters in the background. He traces an index finger across the paper. There’s a trail near Tim’s house that runs south, up and over the hills at least three miles, and it was used as an evacuation route in ’76. The only way to cross is on foot or by all-terrain vehicle. Still, it’s badly overgrown. There are steep drops, and there’s bound to be lots of mud. Tim knows it’ll be almost impossible to traverse on foot with some of the older residents.

He stares at the map. Every so often he walks to his back deck. The river’s disappeared in the darkness, but he can hear it. The boulders tumble through the water and sound like rolling thunder. He can feel the rumble. Tim eventually nods off upright in a dining room chair. Even then he finds himself waking. He can’t stop listening to the river.

Joyce and Evelyn can’t sleep, either. They sit in Evelyn’s darkened house and wait. Sometime around 10 p.m., the two walk onto the front porch.

Immediately, they hear trees in the distance—popping and crashing as they are pulled from the earth. Down below, Joyce sees trees falling near her house. Pines and cedars. Immediately, they hear trees in the distance—popping and crashing as they are pulled from the earth.One of her massive elms is pushed over. Then another. They’re like dominoes. One after the other crash into her house’s roof and smash into her art studio. She and Evelyn watch it all vanish.

Evelyn’s place is still higher than the water, though. The river has to stop rising at some point, they think. But if it somehow reaches them, there’s an escape: They can climb up the embankment on the south side of Evelyn’s house, then go over a metal guardrail and onto the highway. There will be rocks and wet brush and mud. It’s steep. At some point, they might have to crawl.

At about 9 p.m., Wesley walks 500 feet to his cousin Jay Williams’ house. There are several people there when Wesley arrives: neighbors, a couple of relatives. Even on higher ground, there’s an edge to the folks here. They take inventory of the house, and Wesley helps gather batteries, flashlights, candles, whatever might get them through.

It’s black outside when Wesley makes his way home around midnight. To his left, the river’s pushed well over its banks. Water’s flowing, ankle-deep, through his grandmother’s front lawn across the street, over her lilacs.

Wesley walks up his driveway, enters his house through the open garage, and checks on his grandmother relaxing on the couch. In his bedroom, he strips down to his blue boxers and climbs into bed. He pulls the cool sheets over his body.

There's a creaking noise outside—Joyce and Evelyn can hear it. Evelyn gets a flashlight. It’s sometime around 2 a.m.

Evelyn walks to the back deck. What she sees defies reason: The water’s almost up to the house and is now more than 150 feet across Cedar Cove. Land that existed hours ago is now deep under the rushing water.

Evelyn puts a leash on her dog, a miniature pinscher named Sheba. Joyce feels for her driver’s license, her credit card, and her cash, and the two hurry into the garage. Joyce grabs the toothpaste tube and the block of cheese and stuffs them into her coat pockets. The rolling door’s already up.

Evelyn stops at the edge of the garage, just before the driveway. “I need to get something!” she hollers. Evelyn hands Joyce the dog’s leash and hurries back into the house.

A sound breaks open the night—like paper tearing. Joyce watches Evelyn’s house rip away from the garage, then slowly slide into the river.

“Evelyn!” she screams.

A few seconds pass.

“Joyce!”

Evelyn’s at the foot of the door that once led into the house. She’s hanging onto the base of the doorway, still holding her flashlight.

Joyce runs for the door.

“I think I broke my back!” Evelyn yells. “I can’t feel my legs!”

Joyce grabs her friend’s hands, pulls Evelyn into the garage, then gets her onto her back. She carries Evelyn out of the garage and toward the soaked lawn. They don’t say anything. Joyce puts her friend on the ground, then lifts Evelyn into a sitting position. She hooks Evelyn under the armpits and begins to pull. Evelyn’s at least four inches taller than Joyce, and her feet drag across the yard. Joyce reaches the base of the hill and sets Evelyn down on her side.

“I think I broke my back!” Evelyn yells again. “I can’t feel my legs!”

Their senses are heightened now. Though the power is out, it’s like the lawn is bathed in light. Joyce can see everything—the river, the garage, the cars. The ground is liquefying. The river’s coming at them. Evelyn’s car is parked out front, maybe 50 feet away. It tips, then falls into the water.

“We’ve got to get out of here!” Joyce says. She’s exhausted. There’s no way she can get both of them up to the highway. Evelyn’s body is useless. Both of them are about to die.

“Go!” Evelyn demands.

Joyce passes the dog to her friend. Evelyn hands Joyce the flashlight. A strand of wet white hair sticks to Evelyn’s forehead. Joyce wipes it away.

“Why is the yard light on?” Evelyn asks.

Joyce turns away from Evelyn and digs a hand into the hill. She takes a few steps. She slides backward. She takes more steps, quickening her pace, digging and sliding. Mud cakes her pants, her coat. She doesn’t look back. Joyce’s last memory of Cedar Cove will be of Evelyn on her side, hugging Sheba, waiting for the river to take her away.

Wesley gets up from bed at least 10 times to check the water. At 2 a.m. he puts on a pair of steel-toe hiking boots, gets a small flashlight, and walks into the garage in his underwear. It smells wet and dirty outside. He makes his way in the rain down the dirt driveway. His flashlight illuminates the river, which now is washing over Grouse Hollow Lane.

He hears something. A woman’s voice? It seems like a whisper compared to the raging river. He hears it again.

“HELP! HELP!”

Wesley takes a few steps closer to the water and shines his light.

“I can’t see you!” he calls out. “You need to yell louder!”

“HELP! HELP!”

Wesley runs up the driveway to the basement, grabs a nylon climbing rope, then tears back down to the water. He hears screams now.

There isn’t time to consider the options. He doesn’t think about the water’s depth. He doesn’t think about its speed—19,000 cubic feet per second, compared to the river’s average flow of 67 cubic feet per second. Wesley steps into the water. Twenty feet in front of him, he sees the corner of a fence sticking out of the river. He walks toward it. The water pushes hard against his feet, then his ankles, his calves, then his knees. It’s impossible to imagine this was a lawn just 12 hours ago. Shadows rush past. There are broken trees, roofs, siding. There’s debris caught in the fence and water’s shooting over it in eight-foot bursts. Wesley reaches the fence and immediately sees the branches of a lilac bush sticking out of the river another 10 feet ahead. He goes for them.

Wesley reaches the bush and turns his back to the rushing water to get his balance. He scans the river with his flashlight, then pushes on toward a nearby tree. He’s there only a few seconds before he sloshes through the water toward a second tree. “Where are you?” he yells. Wesley searches the water again with the light.

“HELP! HELP!”

A little to his right, maybe 25 feet away, there she is: a woman pressed against an elm tree. Her arms flail above the river as water intermittently runs over her head. A little to his right, maybe 25 feet away, there she is: a woman pressed against an elm tree. Her arms flail above the river as water intermittently runs over her head. Wesley slowly moves toward her. When he finally gets to the tree he looks down at the woman. She’s older, with long hair. She’s half-naked. “You’re going to be alright,” Wesley assures her. “I’m going to get you out of here.” Wesley wraps an arm behind the woman’s back, then puts his other arm under her legs. He lifts. “My leg! My leg!” the woman cries. Her left leg is snapped below her knee. It dangles at a gruesome angle. “The river took our house!” she yells. “The river took our house! My leg! My leg!”

As Wesley makes his way toward land with the woman in his arms, his feet sink into the muck. He’s 50 feet from the river’s edge. Wesley tries to pull himself out. Nothing. The woman’s limp. It’s like trying to hold someone who’s passed out.

Wesley looks at the woman’s face. It’s covered in silt. “You need to hold on so we can get out of here,” he tells her. The woman grabs tightly onto Wesley. He pulls his feet out, walks her from the water and up the hill onto his mother’s property.

At the same time, Jay Williams and another man are standing on the highway with a few neighbors. The pair moved up to the road with their families around 2 a.m. when the river started to give way. Now, in the distance, they see the yellow light from Wesley’s flashlight bobbing near the water.

Wesley is sitting on the hill when the two come barreling down. They see the woman on her back, moaning in pain, next to him. Jay looks at her leg and worries she’s about to go into shock. His house is the most comfortable. The three decide she needs to go there.

Tim Brady wakes in his chair just after dawn. His lamp’s burned out and the map’s on the table. Tim goes to the deck, stands next to the hot tub. The river’s fogged in below, but it’s still flowing hard, still loud as hell.

At 7:43 a.m., his radio crackles. There’s just a brief explanation, a bit of detail: female, 60s, badly broken leg, an address off Grouse Hollow Lane. The woman was pulled out of the river about five hours ago, but no one could get cell reception. Tim gets in his truck and is banging on the door within 10 minutes.

Holy shit, he thinks. The dining room at Jay Williams’ house has become a makeshift field hospital. The woman, Flo Horn, is semiconscious on an inflatable mattress, moaning, blankets covering her stomach and chest. Tim recognizes Flo’s husband, Mike, from the day before. Mike’s sitting at his wife’s side. Flo, Mike, and Patty Goodwine were together at Patty’s house when it broke apart and collapsed into the river. Mike tumbled through the water and was spit out on a sandbar about a quarter-mile away—around 70 yards from where his wife was found—and survived by climbing up a pine tree and waiting out the surge. He walked out just an hour earlier, once the river began to recede. Patty, a 60-year-old widow living with multiple sclerosis, hasn’t been seen.

A neighbor, Barb Anderson, is holding Flo’s hand, trying to get Flo to do Lamaze breathing exercises. Joyce Kilmer is off to one side, huddled in a chair. She’d been plucked off the guardrail above Evelyn’s house, shivering, an hour and a half earlier. There are others here, too, screaming and crying. There’s a woman running around the house: “I can’t believe this is happening! How are we getting out of here?”

Tim can’t take it. “Alright!” he yells. “Everyone needs to calm down!”

Tim checks Flo’s leg. In all the years he’s been doing this work, it’s one of the worst breaks he’s seen—a “tib-fib,” at the intersection of the tibia and fibula. “Jenica, no! We gotta get out of here!”The area just below Flo’s left knee is swollen and black and purple, like someone’s beaten it with a bat. Still, Flo’s breathing and she doesn’t appear to be in shock. Tim says he’s going to get an EMT.

The highway passes in a blur. Tim pulls up the driveway where Jenica Butts is staying and barely stops before he’s out of his truck.

“Jenica, we gotta go!” he yells as he pounds on the front door.

“Wait a second.”

“Jenica, no! We gotta get out of here!”

Tim’s back in his truck moments later, hauling up U.S. 34 with Jenica in her car behind him. When they arrive, Tim gets a medical evacuation plan together while Jenica stabilizes Flo’s leg. Someone hands Flo some prescription OxyContin pills and a glass of water.

Tim’s out front when he radios dispatch in Loveland. There’s no way an ambulance is getting in, so he requests a medevac. National Guard Black Hawks are available, but Tim’s not certain where to set up a landing zone. He’s scoping out a nearby field a few minutes later when a neighbor, Chris Turner, arrives and suggests an area atop the highway, near some power lines. Chris spent five years in the Army and helped land Black Hawks. Tim borrows some pink paint from Jay’s garage and gives it to Chris. They hustle up to the road, and Chris makes a rectangle that spans the highway’s westbound lane. On opposite ends of the rectangle, he writes “LZ,” landing zone.

Almost five hours after he first arrived, Tim hears the thump-thump-thump of the UH-60 Black Hawk’s blades as they echo off the canyon walls. He watches the helicopter drop onto the highway. With Tim’s help, Jenica and two others roll Flo onto a sheet of plywood, carry her to the back of a pickup, and drive her up the road to the chopper.

They get Flo inside the helicopter; her husband is loaded into a seat in the back, and Jenica goes in next. Tim steps away, shades his eyes as the chopper takes off in a wash of dirt. The Black Hawk rises into the gray sky. Tim follows the dark shape as it moves above the canyon walls then disappears into the distance.

By that night, the rain has slowed considerably. Dying fish flop on the sand along the river’s edge. Wesley throws as many as he can back into the water. Joyce sleeps in a cottage across the highway and is led out on an all-terrain vehicle the next day. Wesley’s grandmother leaves soon after. Early Monday, three days after the river obliterated their community, Tim and Pam are evacuated via an ATV and eventually make it to Loveland. They’ll return home together two and a half months later.

This past summer, Tim Brady winds his way around the dirt roads near his house and points out the homes of folks who were trapped here. His truck bumps along the rutted road. He talks about the survivors, tells yet another story that pops into his head. Tim knows who’s struggling, the people who’ve left and don’t plan to return, the couples who’ve capitulated to the stress and whose relationships are just barely hanging on.

Larimer County suffered 1,229 destroyed or damaged structures and two deaths: Evelyn Starner and Patty Goodwine. Evelyn’s body was discovered on a riverbank eight days after she disappeared. Patty’s body was found in a flood debris field on October 7. Officially, Tim is credited with saving 125 residents, either through evacuations or moving them to higher ground. For his efforts, the Big Thompson Canyon Volunteer Fire Department gave Tim its Medal of Valor—the department’s highest honor.

Tim’s different these days, his wife says. He was a tough man. Nothing used to bother him, but lately his thoughts have become scattered. It’s been this way for the past year. Tim relives that week, picks apart the moments. He sees their faces in his mind. Flo and Mike and Patty on that deck; Evelyn and Joyce trying to get up the hill. “I wonder,” he whispers, “maybe I could have done more.”

He navigates his way down to the highway, makes a left, and barely has time to accelerate before he stops on the dirt drive that once led down into Cedar Cove. Only two of the houses here survived. Crews came in this past winter and wiped away what remained of the neighborhood—leveled the earth, erased the area where Joyce and Evelyn and Patty and the Horns lived until it resembled a strip-mining pit. Two more houses were torn down. Even Station 7 is gone. Tim points out where it used to be and shows the spot where, shortly after Flo was choppered out, he dropped to a knee and cried.

Tim says he had a vision here. He saw the trees again, the houses, the river flowing far in the distance. He put a hand out to touch it.

Wesley doesn’t talk about it much these days: that one night, that moment, which will define him for the rest of his life. Even when people from around the neighborhood shake his hand, when the elderly women up the road throw their arms around him. Wesley would do it again. Of course he would. But he’s also wondered what came over him in that instant when he was standing at the edge of his driveway, looking at all that water. “I didn’t think I had that in me,” he says. “I never saw myself that way.”

Even now, his mother cries when she drives through the canyon. She cries for the homes that are gone, for the trees, for the land the river took away. She cries when she thinks of her cousin who died in the 1976 flood. She wonders about Wesley, about how things might have turned out differently.

There’s a green and yellow ribbon tied around the elm tree where Wesley scooped Flo out of the water. It’s one of the few things people around Cedar Cove don’t want to forget from that awful week. The fence and the bush are still there, too. The river’s in the distance, behind a few homes. Wesley is at the tree, standing over the silt-covered lawn where he found Flo. Blades of grass are finally poking up across the property, patchy and thin.

One night this past spring, Joyce Kilmer wakes up to the sound of snapping trees. She jumps from her bed in the darkness, moving as fast as she can through her rental just outside Loveland, darting from blackened window to blackened window to see what’s happening. There’s a crash, like a limb dropping onto one of the buildings outside. But it’s too dark; she can’t even pick up shadows. There’s no way I’m going out there, Joyce thinks. She walks back to bed and pulls herself tight under the covers. She’ll check on the damage in the morning.

Except there is none. When Joyce awakes, she steps onto her small wooden porch, walks into the dawn along her driveway. Not a scratch on any of the buildings. The trees are standing, solid and upright.

Had she been dreaming? Joyce is certain she wasn’t. It was too real: the sound of cracking limbs, the fear she felt. Joyce settles herself, scans the property again. After a few moments, she turns around and walks back inside.

 

Robert Sanchez is 5280 ’s senior staff writer. Email him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter.