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 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.