One lifetime; two floods

By Bob McDonnell
The Surveyor

Jerry Shafer, a survivor of the 1976 flood, tells his story of riding the wave of floodwaters and losing his friend and neighbor in the Big Thompson Canyon Flood of 1976 at the 38th Annual Remembrance of the flood on Thursday, July 31 near Drake in the Big Thompson Canyon. This year’s ceremony was even more significant with the floods of 2013 fresh on everyone’s minds. All photos by Bob McDonnell/ The Surveyor

Jerry Shafer, a survivor of the 1976 flood, tells his story of riding the wave of floodwaters and losing his friend and neighbor in the Big Thompson Canyon Flood of 1976 at the 38th Annual Remembrance of the flood on Thursday, July 31 near Drake in the Big Thompson Canyon. This year’s ceremony was even more significant with the floods of 2013 fresh on everyone’s minds.
All photos by Bob McDonnell/ The Surveyor

As the old saying goes, time really does fly as you get older.

It seems that the flood of July 31, 1976 happened a few years ago–not 38. With the anniversary of this deadly flood and the flood of last Sept. 13, my mind flashed back in time.

In July of 1976, I had only lived in Loveland for seven years and I had worked at Hewlett-Packard for about the same amount of time. I still remember my wife, Rhonda, 4-year-old son and I seeing helicopters landing in the area where K-Mart is now located on Wilson Avenue and Eisenhower Blvd. Some of the flights brought out survivors who went to the command center at Loveland High School. Other flights presumably removed some the bodies of the 144 unfortunate souls that did not make it out.

Communications at that time did not include computers or social media, of course. Any information gleaned came from the Denver television and radio stations; some stories with black-and-white pictures came in the local newspaper.

That particular weekend, 38 years ago, many of my friends and coworkers from HP attended one of the annual picnics at Hermit Park, located south of Estes Park. The company’s rapid growth required more than one picnic to accommodate the growing employee base so I was not at the mountain park that day. For days, I wondered if they all made it out alive.

After remembering the victims of two floods in the Big Thompson, the crowd enjoyed snacks and some purchased books about the flood.

After remembering the victims of two floods in the Big Thompson, the crowd enjoyed snacks and some purchased books about the flood.

Later, we heard survival stories; heroic deeds and of loss of acquaintances. I remember our insurance agent, who lived west of Loveland, telling how his Jeep disappeared in the rapidly moving water. He grabbed his dog by its neck and made it to safety.

Many were not so lucky.

One of my coworkers, a National Guard member at the time, left his Loveland home to search for bodies after the flood waters receded. All he said was that the fast moving water and rocks made it impossible to identify the age or gender of some of those lost. He never spoke of the event again.

Another friend, somewhat new to the mortuary business, told of working almost nonstop for days. The same held true for a young Colorado State Patrol Trooper. Interestingly, the flood of 1976 took a toll on both men. Neither stayed with their career choice for long after working the flood.

The ’76 Big Thompson Flood has been referred to as a “hundred-year flood”, or “500-year flood,” or in some cases was called “the flood a lifetime.” We all hoped that was the case.

As the 38th Big Thompson flood memorial unfolded, fire trucks sat nearby and at the ready.

As the 38th Big Thompson flood memorial unfolded, fire trucks sat nearby and at the ready.

I, like most who witnessed the devastation in 1976 felt that we would never see a similar flood in our lifetime. But, Sept. 13, 2013 showed us that we were wrong. This latest flood, although larger geographically, spared many canyon residents but took the lives of Patty Goodwine and Evelyn Starner. Five people: Evelyn Kindred, Teresa Graham, George McCarty, Vernon Oler and Rochelle Rogers, remain missing and are presumed dead.

My wife and I each knew one of these people.

I first met Patty Goodwine in the early 1990s when I worked at United Way and she participated as a volunteer. The other flood casualty, Evelyn Starner worked at Good Samaritan Society’s Loveland Village. Rhonda visited her mother almost daily at Good Samaritan and spoke to Starner many times during those visits.

Although my wife and I merely observed the two floods, Sue Brungardt, a Berthoud resident since 1999, saw the 1976 flood up close and personal. At the time, the then-15-year-old got unprecedented access to the canyon. Brungardt’s grandfather, Alfred Brungardt, worked for the county road department as a supervisor.

McDonnell  Canyon resident and event coordinator Barb Anderson unveils the newest artwork to remember the victims of the flood.

Canyon resident and event coordinator Barb Anderson unveils the newest artwork to remember the victims of the flood.

“He was the last one out and the first one back in,” in 1976, she recalled.

The teenaged Brungardt accompanied her grandfather after the flood, talking her camera to record the scene.

Jeanne Perrine’s flood story covers both floods too. Perrine, her husband and two young daughters lost their home in Drake in 1976. One of those daughters is Deanna Slout, a Berthoud banker.

“We drove out in front of the water,” Perrine said, quickly pointing out that at the time no signs cautioning people to move to higher ground were in place.

She remembers the night being what she terms as “very black” and said the family “prayed all the way down” the canyon, she said.

Perrine’s husband, John, works at the City of Loveland water plant located west of the city near Chasteen’s Grove. Since he was on duty when the September 2013 flood hit, John had no choice but to stay on duty for three days. Thanks to his efforts and his work partner Butch Ramirez, Loveland did not lose its water supply. Ramirez is a Berthoud resident too.

A crowd gathered early in the evening at the Drake fire station to remember both floods in the canyon.

A crowd gathered early in the evening at the Drake fire station to remember both floods in the canyon.

There is one more twist of coincidence to the Perrine story. John Perrine knew Patty Goodwine. The two City of Loveland employees served on a committee together, at one time.

John and Jeanne Perrine adopted a pay-it-forward mentality after the flood. They do this by volunteering for Santa Cops, Relay for Life and the kid’s rodeo at the fair. John serves on the sheriff’s posse as well.

On July 31, the 38th Memorial Service of the Big Thompson Flood took place at the Big Thompson Canyon Volunteer Fire Department station near Drake. Event organizer Barb Anderson arranged a time of prayer and remembering. Flood survivor, Jerry Shaffer, played a song and gave a speech.

A new heart-shaped memorial created by Loveland sculptor George Walbye now sits next to the one placed years ago to honor those lost in 1976.

At 15, Sue Brungardt documented the destruction after the Big Thompson Canyon flood in 1976. The photo on the left shows a car precariously on the edge of a small droppoff where the floodwater washed away the riverbank.  Photo courtesy of Sue Brunghart

At 15, Sue Brungardt documented the destruction after the Big Thompson Canyon flood in 1976. The photo on the left shows a car precariously on the edge of a small droppoff where the floodwater washed away the riverbank.
Photo courtesy of Sue Brunghart

The somber crowd listened as Anderson wrapped up the ceremony.

“We never thought it would ever happen again,” Anderson said.

Having been on the fringe of both floods myself, we now know that it can happen, again.

The wording on the heart calls Patty Goodwine and Evelyn Starner, “family, friends and neighbors” and says they will “Never be forgotten.”

The wording on the heart calls Patty Goodwine and Evelyn Starner, “family, friends and neighbors” and says they will “Never be forgotten.”