FORT COLLINS, Colo. (CBS4) — A procession of emergency vehicles paid tribute to Larimer County Park Ranger Brendan Unitt on Friday afternoon. A private family service was scheduled to take place after that.
Unitt, 27, drowned a week ago in Horsetooth Reservoir while on patrol and trying to help other people on the water. Officials think strong winds may have played a role in his death.
During the procession through Fort Collins and across Interstate 25 a line of police and rescue vehicles were greeted by salutes from bystanders. The cars passed under an American flag draped from a fire engine, and Unitt’s patrol boat was towed by one of the vehicles through the route.
Larimer County Sheriff’s Office recently posted a video on Facebook discussing the events they believe led to Unitt’s death, and impact of his passing.
“If I had to pick one word to describe Brendan, selfless, would be the word. Everything that Brendan did was for someone else,” said Cpl. Trevor Knight of Larimer County Department of Natural Resources and friend of Unitt. “Brendan dedicated himself to his community and his country.”
The Larimer County Sheriff’s Office communications received a call at 9:18 p.m. Thursday, about a missing ranger on Horsetooth Reservoir. Unitt’s boat was found in the water, but the former U.S. Marine was missing.
“The engine was shut off and the keys were removed from ignition. Based on footprints in the shore, we believe the boat was intentionally beached while Unitt patrolled in that area,” said Larimer County Sheriff Justin Smith.
Unitt disappeared while responding to a distress call on the reservoir during a high wind event. Other rangers reported hearing broken radio traffic believed to be from Unitt, but he never came back on the air to respond to the emergency.
“The most likely scenario we believe is Unitt was quickly returning to his patrol boat, when he realized those winds blew his boat off the shore. He likely took off his flotation device because he knew if he got in the water with it, it would auto inflate, disabling him from working to retrieve his boat,” explained Smith.
Smith said Unitt’s life jacket was located across the reservoir on the beach. Winds were around 30 mph during the time Unitt was patrolling Horsetooth Reservoir.
“We believe when he took that vest off and when he got in the water, he himself became in distress and eventually was dragged off the shore and pulled under. It was at that point that he lost his life,” said Smith.
Authorities launched a massive search for Unitt that lasted for several hours. Several agencies were involved, including the Larimer County Sheriff’s Office, Poudre Fire Authority, Colorado State Patrol and the Denver Police Department helicopter.
Unitt’s body was found in approximately 13 feet of water. His death was ruled an accidental drowning.
Knight says Unitt would respond to everything from medical emergencies to towing stalled boats. He says the ranger corps and the community have lost an asset and a friend.
The Sheriff’s Office says they’ll never know what happened for sure, but they’re still seeking information from witnesses and looking for more evidence to better determine what happened.
Others rangers were able to help the two individuals Unitt set out to assist.
You can help Unitt’s family by donating to a memorial fund. Checks can be mailed to: Brendan Unitt Memorial Fund, P.O. Box 272253, Fort Collins, Colorado, 80527.