On a Wednesday Evening last September, Michelle Grainger and her husband, Steve Le Goff, stood in a downpour in front of their two-story Victorian home, one of a handful of historic structures in the tiny hamlet of Salina, Colorado, a few miles west of Boulder. They wondered aloud how much worse the storm would get. It had been raining for three days, and Gold Run Creek, the normally placid stream that flowed 40 feet from their home, had become a raging torrent.
“I think [the water] is going to reach the garage,” said Steve, 51. Still, the couple believed they were well prepared for the rising stream. Ever since the Four Mile Canyon Fire in 2010, which had wiped out most of the trees and much of the vegetation in the foothills around Salina, authorities had warned of possible catastrophic flash flooding.
Steve and Michelle, 52, had listened and had stacked 2,000 sandbags around their property. They had strung safety line along the footpath switchbacking up the steep hill directly behind their house, in case they had to evacuate their home at night. Their backpacks were crammed with supplies. All they had to do was strap harnesses onto their two Rhodesian Ridgebacks, Lucy and Kayla, and put their two cats, Izzie and Sophie, into carriers, and they would be ready to bolt for high terrain.
By Wednesday night, authorities were urging residents to do just that. Sections of the only road into and out of the narrow canyon were already underwater. If residents wanted to escape by car, this could be their last chance.
But Steve and Michelle hunkered down. They’d endured flooding in the canyon before and expected to ride out this storm as well. It was one thing to prepare to leave and quite another to abandon your property and possessions.
They were worried, however, about their neighbors. Across the street, Russell Brockway, an 87-year-old fellow with a pacemaker, was staying put in his 300-square-foot cabin. Kay Cook and Doug Burger, retired English professors in their 70s who lived just up the road, were doing the same.
Eric Stevens, 48, and Michelle Wieber, 50, and their teenage sons, Colton and Caleb, lived next door. They had spent years restoring their 1875 log cabin, one of Salina’s original homes, and wouldn’t leave it easily.
The creek continued to rise. By early afternoon, Steve and Michelle’s sandbag barricade was underwater. The rising tide carried thick logs and refrigerator-size boulders that clogged the culverts and bridges. The crashing sounds from outside were so loud that the couple could hardly hear over them. They went outside once to try to trek up the hill to Cook and Burger’s house but were cut off by dangerous waters.
Less than a half mile up the road, Brett Gibson, the Four Mile fire chief, sat in Salina’s small fire station, talking on the phone with the emergency operations center in Boulder. During the day, Gibson, along with the other fire chiefs around the county, had realized that this was no ordinary storm. Flooding was not unheard-of in the Colorado Front Range, but bad weather typically blew through in a few hours. This system was stubbornly parked overhead.
Around 10 p.m., Gibson took a call from the Emergency Operations Center (EOC). “This is the real s—,” the dispatcher told him. “Tonight is going to be really, really bad.”
“Most of my communication with EOC is quite formal,” Gibson said later. “So I know when they start using profanity that we have a major situation on our hands.”
Gibson immediately broadcast the fire department’s most urgent warning to the locals, many of whom were equipped with weather radios: “Climb to higher ground immediately. Imminent threat to life and property. All residents should evacuate.”
Still, Steve and Michelle stayed put. When they ventured outside the house early Thursday morning, the storm seemed to be easing. The raging creek had subsided slightly. They were relieved to find their garage intact, though nearby culverts and bridges that connected residents to the main road had been destroyed. The power was out, and the deafening noise from the creek still made communication difficult.
Steve and Michelle walked next door to the home of Eric and Michelle, and the families hatched a plan. Worst-case scenario, the six of them would take shelter in Eric and Michelle’s guesthouse, which was nestled in the woods behind, 20 feet above the main house. Neither couple believed that the flood would swell to that height.
Satisfied with the plan, Steve and Michelle returned home and settled in with their dogs and cats, which they loved like family. Outside, the rain fell with steady, drenching force.
Up at the fire station, during a call with EOC at about 8:30 a.m., Gibson was informed that the weather lull was temporary. “All the data indicated that Thursday was going to be even worse,” Gibson said. The National Weather Service, which rarely veered from drab, technical information in its statements, described the rainfall as “biblical.”
Gibson worked diligently to orchestrate rescue efforts, but by now the full scope of the situation had been revealed: The flooding wasn’t limited to a few canyons; it was spread across 14 counties. In Boulder County, the worst hit, Sheriff Joe Pelle declared a disaster, establishing an incident command center at the Boulder airport and queuing up resources, including two Black Hawk helicopters, several swift-water rescue teams, and dozens of search-and-rescue workers.
Steve and Michelle’s neighbor Russell Brockway had ridden out the night in his tiny outhouse, perched 30 feet up the hill behind his cabin. That morning, a few emergency personnel had arrived to evacuate some of the Salina residents, including the old-timer.
By late Thursday morning, the rain had begun to accelerate, and Gold Run Creek began to surge. What had moments earlier been heavy floodwaters now appeared to be a 20-foot-high wall of water, mud, and debris, sluicing through the canyon.
The surge plowed down the canyon, through the heart of Salina, ripping huge propane tanks from their foundations. The unhitched containers spun and hissed violently, filling the canyon with a pungent white haze. One-hundred-year-old trees snapped like toothpicks.
Farther down the canyon, Steve and Michelle, and Eric, Michelle, and the boys resorted to their last-ditch plan: take refuge in Eric and Michelle’s guesthouse.
The two families piled into the small cottage that evening with another neighbor, Gurpreet Gil, and her cat. Steve, Michelle, Gurpreet, and the dogs and cats settled in the living room. Eric and Michelle climbed into the white wrought iron bed in the back of the cottage. The kids went upstairs to a small loft. The group planned to hike out in the morning to find help, tackling the long, steep trail that led to the ridge.
Steve and Michelle made themselves comfortable under blankets on the floor, their animals next to them. Michelle slept in her hiking boots and her parka, in case of an emergency.
Too nervous to sleep, Gurpreet stood in the doorway between the kitchen and the living room, monitoring the weather.
Around midnight, Steve heard “three loud crashes” and shot up. A massive mudslide had crushed the back wall of the cottage and was gushing into the bedroom where Eric and his wife slept. Steve heard screaming, but without power, during the howling storm, he didn’t know from where.
The mud and water ripped through an interior wall. It picked Steve up and swept him toward the front of the house. As he approached a wall, he jammed his feet on either side of the entrance’s doorframe and braced himself while the mud, water, rocks, and timber stacked up beneath him.
The mudslide then swept Michelle and Gurpreet and the five animals across the living room. The debris piled in the corner of the room before finally slamming out through the front wall of the house.
The animals were gone, buried, he assumed, in what was now four or five feet of mud inside the house. Apparently uninjured, Gurpreet stood in the kitchen. The boys had run halfway down the loft staircase and were shouting for their parents.
Water and mud continued to flow into the house, and Steve realized it had nowhere to go. He kicked at the front door until it burst open, providing some escape for the debris. Despite the chaos, a calm descended on him as he also felt an extraordinary physical strength. Free and seemingly uninjured, he began clawing at the dirt encasing his wife beneath him. She was buried up to her chest. “This is not how I want to die!” Michelle yelled.
“This is not how you’re going to die,” Steve shouted back. But the mud and debris might as well have been wet cement around the huge boulders. He sank his hands into the muck and tried to push away the debris. He had no sense of time. Finally, Steve was able to leverage the stones off his wife, freeing her upper torso.
Then he noticed a dog’s leg sticking out of a pile of mud. He dug at the dirt and unearthed Kayla. Handing the dog over to his wife, Steve resumed digging around Michelle, who scooped mud out of Kayla’s mouth. On impulse, she pressed her mouth against Kayla’s and forced air into the animal’s lungs. Again. Kayla’s eyes flickered and opened. “She’s alive!” Michelle screamed to Steve.
“OK. Help me dig,” Steve said frantically. Michelle put Kayla down and started scraping at the mud that enclosed her legs. When she was free, she looked for Kayla, but the dog had disappeared.
In the bedroom, Eric had been buried up to his neck and entangled in the bedsheets. Muddy water flowed over him. As his wife held up his head to keep him from drowning, she yelled for the others.
Gurpreet had grabbed various kitchen utensils to dig with and passed them to Steve and Michelle. Many of the utensils merely broke in half. Meanwhile, the piles of debris had left just a few feet in which to move. Fearing that the structure could collapse entirely, Michelle Grainger took Colton and Caleb next door to Gurpreet’s house, breaking a window to get in. Gurpreet managed to reach a 911 operator on her cell phone. The dispatcher told her that no one could reach them until daylight.
At the Gold Hill command post, Brett Gibson received word about the mudslide, but there was nothing he could do. “That was one of the worst nights I’ve ever had,” he recalled. “These are my friends. But it would have been suicide to put a rescue team into those conditions.”
Michelle ran up the trail behind her house and reached a neighbor’s home where other Salina residents were taking shelter. Along the way, Kayla appeared, and then, amazingly, Lucy, covered in mud but very much alive. Michelle told her neighbors of the others’ plight. One man followed Michelle back to the cottage to help dig Eric out of the mud. After three hours, the rescuers managed to free him. Finally, at 3 a.m., the ravaged survivors limped to the neighbor’s safe house, where they drank soup, shivering in their soaked clothing. Later, Michelle would learn that she had suffered two broken ribs and a compression fracture in her back, the pain temporarily masked by the adrenaline coursing in her veins.
Between Wednesday night and Thursday night, nine inches of rain fell in and around Salina, twice the previous record. In all, the floods and mudslides resulted in billions of dollars’ worth of damage and claimed eight lives—incredibly, none of them in Salina. On Friday morning, the storm at last abating, rescue efforts began in full force, including those of six helicopters operating continuously for four days.
Later on Friday, shaken and sore, Steve and Michelle hiked back to their house, which had survived the worst. Muck and silt covered their garage, but their preparations had paid off. As they inspected the guesthouse where they’d almost lost their lives the night before, they found Sophie, her leg broken, under a pile of outdoor furniture. Only Izzie was still missing.
The next day, the remaining survivors were to fly from Salina to Boulder. Before leaving, Michelle and Steve made one last attempt to find Izzie. As they wandered into the woods behind the guesthouse, Michelle heard a faint meowing. As she called for Izzie, the meowing got louder. Finally, the cat burst from the woods and into Michelle’s arms.
A few hours later, the couple hiked to a clearing where an Army Black Hawk awaited. Helicopters rarely evacuate animals, but that day the crew made an exception. With Michelle, Steve, the dogs, and the cats on board, the Black Hawk rose into the sky, torn clouds revealing the first peek of blue sky in more than a week. The helicopter flew over the ravaged canyons, carrying the survivors to Boulder, where their long recovery could begin.