Here’s my story, a difficult one to tell. It is a tale of strength and survival. Resilience and hope with a dose of good luck thrown in for measure.
This is teamwork at its finest, a group of amazing individuals doing the right thing during a disaster and a sweet reward waiting to be discovered.
During the second week of September 2013, an ominous weather pattern was brewing over Salina, Colorado – the quaint, historic mining town in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, which I call home. Boulder was sandwiched between a high- pressure and a low-pressure system, with four days of consecutive rain forecasted. Our community was just bouncing back from the Fourmile Fire, almost three years to the date. The forest understory was finally green, a bright contrast to the charred trees all around us.
We didn’t know we’d get a year’s worth of rain in a couple of days. We did not get the warning issued by Boulder County (“Biblical amounts of rain….”), and we definitely could not have predicted what was to come.
My boys were ecstatic that school was canceled on Sept. 12th, “A rain day? Woo-hoo!” they shouted as they clambered back into bed. I watched the rain all day, relentless like a monsoon. The road was already a river, making an escape by car impossible. The water chiseled and undercut our driveway, swallowing up a large portion of our land.
“Will our culvert hold?” I wondered as boulders, trees and debris flowed by. A propane tank vented, hissing and sending up a cloud of mist as it sailed by. I thought, “Is this the 100-year flood that the experts predicted would only be a matter of time?” The noise was intolerable – pop went the massive concrete bridge to the north and our 20-ft. by 4-ft. tubular culvert rose out of Gold Run Creek like a giant submarine on a mission downstream.
“This is serious. Get your go pack together and be ready to head to higher ground,” I urged my boys and husband, trying not to sound frantic. “We may have to hike out.”
We soon became an island, cut off from our neighbors across the creek. When the water started coming in our main house, we retreated to our restored, circa-1875 guest cottage, a tiny clapboard house from the gold mining days and an important piece of Boulder County history.
“This house is higher and the water would need to significantly rise,” I reasoned with my three friends who joined us to ride out the storm, providing comfort in numbers. Knowing it would be a long night with little sleep, we decided to take shifts. A friend kept vigil with the flashlight pointed out the bay window at the approaching water, lapping at the peony beds. When it reached a certain point, we’d reassess. We laughed hysterically as a boat floated down our road, now a raging river.
In the wee hours of the night of Friday the 13th, as my boys later pointed out, the unfathomable happened. We were so focused on the flood water in the front of the house that we never considered the possibility of being blindsided from behind while catching some zzzzzzzzs.
I sensed it before I heard it, a deep vibration I felt to my core, a low-pitched rumble as the earth gave way. “Something sounds different!” I said as I instinctively bolted upright when the explosion hit. In a nanosecond, I was pinned from the waist down with water over my head.
“Is this what I think it is?” I pondered in a strangely calm fashion. “So this is how it ends.” A simple statement, my last thoughts as the mud cemented a cast around me and water flowed over me. I pictured how my husband and I would die, in an antique iron bed salvaged from a 100-year-old Colorado ranch and my precious children asleep in the loft. I thought about what it would mean for them to grow up without parents. And I changed my story.
I did what you would have done. I fought for my life and for those I love – my husband and partner in life, a soulmate for nearly 25 years, cocooned under the down comforter, in a similar life-threatening situation like the one I escaped. Somehow, I wriggled just enough to create an air pocket, freed my legs and got my head above water. I held my husband’s head above the water as boulders, beams and debris enveloped us.
Eventually, the water subsided, thanks to another friend’s good sense to kick out the front door, which helped relieve the pressure. Then I dug with the only survival tools I possessed: my hands. I dug until my fingertips were raw. Eventually, our three friends (all heroes with traumas and tales of their own) made it from the front of the house to the back room to aid in our rescue operation.
My boys were ferried to a safer location by a friend, walking across the precarious mudslide to another home surrounded by mud, where they huddled in darkness and chatted with a 911 operator for over two hours. Another friend ran from house to house with lantern in hand, reassuring my boys that “Papa was almost out,” fulfilling the Mom role when I could not and helping to save my husband.
It was up to us to get him out with a positive outcome. We were a group of friends with a common goal, each of us never considering leaving the scene and fleeing to safety, risking our lives while the integrity of the structure was in question.
In our hearts, we knew that a rescue crew was not coming. There was no remaining infrastructure. We dug for hours, sitting in a mud bath of cold water, hypothermic and in shock. My husband was pulling with all his might and had lost circulation in his legs. We plucked boulders off of him and built a dam of rocks to divert the water away. The extent of his injuries was unknown. As fast as we dug, the material filled back in again. The kitchen utensils we were using; a spatula, pasta plate, ladle, and dull kitchen knife, were not working.
“We need tools!” I cried. Miraculously, my friend showed up with a shovel she had retrieved after a dangerous trek to her house. Fading to the point of exhaustion, our teeth chattering uncontrollably and bodies barely able to move, we decide that we need additional help. My friend goes back into the night, hikes along a social trail and returns with a friend who finally frees my husband. Another neighbor shows up with a crow bar.
That’s where I live – a community where people go out on a limb to help one another in times of need – a town filled with hearty, decent mountain folks with hearts of gold. We hiked to safety to another house perched high on bedrock as the water surged below us to spend the night with 15 other neighbors seeking refuge.
All of us are evacuated by Blackhawks during the next two days, the largest helicopter evacuation since Katrina. Five adults, two children, two dogs and three cats survived the impossible, making it out alive from a life-threatening mudslide despite the odds with only minor injuries (broken ribs, L2 compression fracture, shredded fingertips.)
My town of Salina, in addition to Lyons and Jamestown, was one of the hardest-hit by the flood. Numerous groups helped with the cleanup effort. Donate Boulder, a community-based flood relief organization led by Isaac Savitz, helped around the clock. Isaac organized a group of “mudslingers,” as the volunteers are affectionately called, to shovel three feet of mud out of my kitchen, the one part of the house which remained relatively in tact.
I recall chatting with a photographer friend as we were examining the north side of the building, blown out by the force and balancing like a house of cards.
“Hey Michelle… want a Coke?” Isaac giddily asked with the exuberance of a child getting their first bike from Santa. I looked at him with disbelief. “We unburied it from the mud.”
“Oh yes, the reserve case we kept under the maple butcher block… the kind my family prefers, tucked away for gatherings with friends,” my foggy mind recalled.
“Is it safe?” I asked, looking at the bottles coated in mud and imagining all of the harmful organisms. “Sure, why not?” Isaac replied, as we wiped the caps with our shirts and opened the bottles. We clinked bottles, toasted and broke into song – one of the most famous jingles of all time – “It’s the real thing!”
“This is the best Coke I have ever had in my life,” I uttered in amazement, trying to wrap my head around the fact it was still cold after being unearthed from the mud.
It was one of those serendipitous moments suspended in time, one forever stamped in my heart: two strangers becoming friends under the worst of circumstances. A kind man and compassionate soul helping his fellow man.
We shared a Coke. We shared a smile. And for the first time in days, I felt at ease. It was a feeling, well… close to happiness.
A fund has been established to help us rebuild our lives and try to save a building landmarked with the Boulder County preservation board. A portion of the proceeds will go to Donate Boulder. Learn more.
Michelle Wieber is an active, stay-at-home mother of two boys with a love for the outdoors. She and her family live in the historic, mining community of Salina in the foothills outside Boulder, Colorado.