DENVER (CBS4) – “He’s alive, he’s alive!”
Those words, shouted by CBS4 photographer Eddie Castro, captured the emotional turnaround during an early-morning water rescue during last September’s historic and devastating flooding.
Reporter Kelly Werthmann and Castro headed to Lafayette on Sept. 12, one of the first days of heavy rains along the Front Range, after receiving a call from CBS4’s newsroom about a possible water rescue in progress on Dillon Road.
Werthmann said the scene, which included two mangled trucks hanging off the road, was frightening: “They were so twisted, you couldn’t believe that somebody was able to survive something like that. And then you see a car completely on its roof in the water.”
Multiple ambulances, fire trucks and first-responders in water-rescue suits attempted to retrieve a man from the overturned car, and it was unclear whether he was alive.
“You see these guys in their water rescue suits and they’re trying to get in this water, but it’s moving so fast,” Werthmann said.
She caught up with a firefighter to ask for an update, and she was told the drivers of the two trucks freed themselves and were transported to nearby hospitals. But the crews were working on pulling a body out of the upside-down car.
“I remember feeling, ‘This flood is for real. This is a deadly flood,’ ” Werthmann said.
Another first-responder told her and Castro to pull their shot back because they were expecting to bust open the car’s window and find the driver dead. She said she was balancing how to report the story against having to relay gruesome information to viewers at 6:45 in the morning.
It was then, with Castor’s camera rolling, when crews smashed the car’s windows and two hands shot out.
“The man was alive,” Werthmann said.
PHOTO GALLERY: Rescuers Save Drivers In Boulder County
She didn’t have to worry about reporting tragedy. Instead, relief and good fortune imbued the scene.
“Seeing that rescue was phenomenal,” Werthmann said. “But I knew that was just the beginning of coverage. You just felt it: The way the rain was coming down and hearing the calls constantly on the scanner, we were in for a long day and a long weekend.”
Werthmann’s anecdote is one of a handful of recollections CBS4 gathered this week that highlighted the good-news stories that emerged from the flood. Here are a few more.
‘It Was Black As Black Is Black’
Clinging to a tree in the darkness, with silt and sediment packing his ears and eyes while flood waters roared full-throated beneath him, John Pellouchoud thought it was the end.
At night in the first days of the flooding, he headed outside his home in Left Hand Canyon after hearing a noise. Nearly immediately a 20-foot wall of mud, rocks, water and debris washed him away. He slammed into a tree in the river.
Pellouchoud talked to CBS4’s Shaun Boyd, his friend and fellow Boulder County resident, the day after his near brush with death on Sept. 12.
“I grabbed the limbs, and I just climbed up,” he told Boyd.
For approximately two hours, Pellouchoud gripped the tree and at times thought he would die. He could hear the St. Vrain River — rumbling below him chock-full of boulders and branches — but he couldn’t see it, making escape nearly impossible.
“It was black as black is black,” he said.
Eventually another tree collided into his tree. He clamored across it and jumped to land. He felt something brush his face. He looked up and saw his dog, Ranger, who survived the ordeal, too. Rescue workers used a rope system to pull him across the river to safety.
Later, Boyd said Pellouchoud considered the irony: The veteran firefighter and search-and-rescue worker needed rescuing himself.
“He’s a mountain guy,” she said. “He’s the one who had been rescuing people throughout the course of his life. He was one of the rescuers during the Big Thompson flood. He talked about, when he was in the tree, the memories of the Big Thompson coming back to him as he was in this blackness, with this river of mud washing below him with huge boulders and trees in it. He’s hanging on for dear life and he keeps having flashbacks of Big Thompson.”
Just hours after leaving the hospital, Pellouchoud rejoined search and rescue efforts.
“They need help,” he said. “The people up in the mountains need help.”
Boyd said the Pellouchoud’s focus was never on himself but on his rescuers.
“Even though his house had been destroyed and he almost died, the thing he wanted to talk about was all these strangers and volunteers who had come to help him after the flood,” she said. “In these tragedies, people try to find the good.”
‘We’ll Get Through This. We’re Coloradans’
Lyons, a town of roughly 2,000 residents on Highway 36 between Boulder and Estes Park, endured some of the worst flooding. The rushing St. Vrain River churned through the highway, ripping away whole sections and rerouting its course as its waters ripped homes from foundations. Hundreds of residents were cut off, later evacuated by the National Guard.
“That whole town was just devastated,” CBS4 reporter Tom Mustin said. “This wall of water just came through and destroyed it.”
The devastation stood in stark contrast to the days before the floods. Mustin’s daughter ran in a cross-country meet in Lyons the prior week.
“It was sunshine,” he said. “There were birds chirping.”
But a week later, it looked to Mustin almost like a war zone. Residents said they’d suffered so much loss it was difficult to process everything mentally, much less physically dig through the mud, sediment and debris that swelled the town.
“I remember the look of shock on people’s faces,” he said. “Everything they ever had was gone. Some of them didn’t know where to go. Some of them didn’t have insurance. It was just horrible. It just had the look of a third-world nation.”
Mustin remembers the resiliency of one family who lost their house: “This family has no home, but they’re holding their little baby, talking about how they’re going to rebuild and they’re going to be fine.”
The town is still rebounding a year later.
This week in Lyons, the state officially reopened Highway 36, partially reconnecting the vital thoroughfare. Construction is expected to be completed by the end of September. Project engineers said they learned a vital lesson: build around where the river wants to flow.
The community is hosting two events on Saturday to encourage visitors to return and remember the flood: One is a Cyclists 4 Lyons ride. The other is Viva Lyons, a fundraiser at Bohn Park to benefit flood relief.
Mustin says he recalls one attitude in particular: “We’ll get through this. We’re Coloradans,” a Lyons resident said.
A year later, that proof is in their survival.
‘A Little Hard To Wrap My Head Around’
There was a seemingly random cruelty with which the floods targeted homes.
Along Highway 36, in between Lyons and Estes Park, the St. Vrain River tore through much of the highway and washed away homes along the riverbank. Other houses perched above the river appeared safe from the St. Vrain but not from mudslides, which poured through and destroyed some homes.
Among the destruction, one woman’s home escaped nearly unscathed.
CBS4 reporter Mark Taylor and photographer Doug Whitehead joined Lyons resident Annie Mannering as she returned temporarily to her home on Tuesday, Sept. 18, a few days after evacuating.
Whitehead and Taylor met Mannering and her friend at evacuee station near Highway 66 and Interstate 25 and drove west along Highway 36 until it was impassable. They then switched to Apple Valley Road.
The devastation was immediately clear.
“There was a lot of destruction,” Whitehead recalls. “It was quite shocking to see how much damage had been done. I had seen flood damage before, but I don’t think I had seen a major highway taken out as much as that one was.”
The group eventually couldn’t drive any farther and had to hike the last mile-and-a-half to Mannering’s home. They skirted along a narrow trail between the canyon walls and the river.
“I hope it’s still intact,” Mannering said as she walked along the path.
It was. Aside from a little water that had seeped into her home, her house was untouched.
Her visit was temporary, though. She gathered a few belonging, watered her plants and left with Whitehead and Taylor.
The widespread destruction — not just along the canyon near Lyons but across the state — still awes Whitehead a year later.
“Mostly — and still — the scope of it was a little hard to wrap my head around,” he said. “What I mostly remembered feeling in the days after is that there are aspects to this flood that we don’t even know yet or won’t understand for a long time because it covered so much land.
“All that water,” he said. “The scope of that was mind-boggling.”
– Written by Tim Skillern for CBSDenver.com