It’s been a decade since violent waters ripped through Fort Collins, buffeting buildings, lifting up cars and claiming the lives of five people. Residents and rescue workers were taken by surprise when one of the largest rainstorms in state history caused Spring Creek to overflow, creating a flash flood that engulfed much of the city and the heart of the CSU campus.
The night of July 28, 1997 unexpectedly became one locals would remember for years to come.
Certainly, for Captain Steve Fleming of the Poudre Fire Authority, or PFA, the seemingly ordinary day turned into the most dangerous night of his career. It is a night that he will never forget, a night that seems like a bad dream.
He looked solemn as he slowly recounted the details.
After having dinner with a couple friends and his two children, Fleming said he began to notice the heavy rain as he listened to the emergency broadcast on the local television channel, warning Larimer County of a possible flash flood.
“Then, around 9:30, my pager went off for all off-duty fire fighters to report with any and all personal flotation devices,” Fleming said.
He knew then that the situation was serious.
When Fleming made it to the scene, on College Avenue and Johnson Drive , near Dairy Queen, he saw waist-high water flowing at great speeds, cars and debris passing by and homes already destroyed.
“I saw a guy hanging from a tree in very fast moving water,” Fleming said. “He was screaming for help.”
Fleming watched police rescue the man as he climbed out of his own vehicle, carrying all of the personal flotation devices, or PFDs, that he owned, and began forcing his way into the chaos.
“I was right smack in the middle of it. I mean right smack in the middle of it,” he said, still in disbelief.
He would soon learn that rescue workers, including Fleming himself, were unprepared for such a disaster. They lacked training, human power and PFD’s.
“I could hear people screaming for help,” Fleming said. “So, I grabbed some rope and some PFDs and started wading through the water.”
The dark, polluted water was 6 to- 7 feet deep where Fleming was swimming.
“I could smell gasoline,” he said. “The water was just oily.”
Fleming made his way to Johnson Center Mobile Home Park, behind Dairy Queen, where he found two families trapped on rooftops. Behind the mobile homes where the families were perched, a mother and her 8-year-old son were stuck in a tree.
“I got both the mother and her child onto the roof, and then I started calling on the radio for a boat of any kind,” Fleming said.
But two of the boats had already been destroyed by the floating debris. So, search and rescuers brought in an 18-foot ski boat instead.
“Then, I heard on the radio that a train had derailed,” Fleming said. “Within 20 minutes of the train derailment, a liquor store exploded and two trailers caught on fire.”
As he retold the events of the infamous night, he shook his head, still shocked at what he was up against, what everyone was up against.
There were about 40 members of the PFA, along with the Larimer County Dive Rescue Team, receiving orders from all over the area, and due to the fires that needed attention and the train wreck, the situation had quickly become more crucial than before.
Wayne Wiggins, a fire fighter also on the scene, was assigned to help put out the fires.
“There was way more going on than we had personnel that could handle,” Wiggins said. “Our help was spread thin.”
Yet, Wiggins and Fleming both knew they had to do what they could with what they had, which meant saving lives in a high risk environment with a short supply of PFDs and not enough rescuers.
“There were a lot of obstacles moving under the water that we couldn’t see,” Wiggins said. “We were concerned about our safety.”
Fleming knew things were getting worse.
“As a fire fighter, I am trained to do a risk profile, which basically says that you should risk a lot to save a lot,” Fleming said. “This risk level was a 10 out of 10, I knew there was going to be death.”
Fleming made his way from home to home, searching for what life he could find.
In one duplex, the water was just below the ceiling, and a dog was frantically paddling back and forth at the top of the water.
“By this point it was late at night, so it was really dark, but the strange thing was that all of the lights were still on in the duplex,” he said. “So, I climbed through the window to save the dog, but he was scared and was pushing me underwater.”
He managed to get the dog to a safe place after a brief struggle.
“The rest of the time I spent searching for more people who needed rescuing,” he said.
Fleming was on the Larimer County Dive Rescue Team for 11 years, yet, even with all his years of training, nothing could prepare him or anyone else for an event such as this.
“In 31 years, this was a career incident,” he said.
It’s a sentiment shared by most fire fighters on the scene that night.
“This happens once in a lifetime,” Wiggins said. “You don’t get too many of those.”
Searching for the dead
Like revisiting a vivid dream from 10 years ago, Fleming searched his memories. He remembers the small details amid the overwhelming series of events, many of which are gloomy memories of looking for, and expecting to find, submerged bodies.
“A room air conditioner was still running underwater in one home; it was freaky looking,” he said. “When I touched the front screen door of that home, I got zapped. I was tasting metal.”
In the days after, Fleming was part of the search team assigned to sort through the mobile home parks, and behind every door he opened, he expected to see the storm’s cold and motionless victims.
“It smelled like the dead,” he said, shaking his head and looking at the floor. “We were sure we would find someone dead.”
In one home, a door would not budge as rescuers tried forcing the door open. When they finally broke the door in, they saw that the room was completely full of diapers that had expanded with water and had taken up all of the space in the room, forcing the door shut.
“It added to the weird,” Fleming said.
Also adding to the dreamlike aftermath, was the train derailment, and not only because a train overturned right in the middle of the flood.
“The train was filled with beans,” Fleming said. “There were beans all over the ground.”
It was the stuff typically saved for storybooks.
“It really was surreal,” Fleming said. “No one had ever seen anything like it before.”
A city of loss
Five people died during the flash flood. 54 were injured. One rescuer was injured.
“We reflected a lot afterward,” Fleming said. “I felt very relieved and pleased and very sad about those that lost their lives.”
Looking back, Fleming said the quickness of the event was the scariest part.
“What made this one freaky, was that it was a flash flood. The rain started at 7 p.m., its peak was around 10:30 p.m. and it was essentially gone by 6 a.m.,” he said. “And it flooded a creek that you can step over most of the time.”
Many people, particularly those who lived in the mobile home parks behind Dairy Queen, lost their homes.
“I felt so bad that so many people went to their home and it wasn’t there,” Fleming said. “These poor folks had no address, no home, nothing.”
And as hundreds of people shifted through the rubble, he was saddened and surprised at what they decided to keep.
“One woman picked up a pot that was full of mud and all banged up,” he said.
Fleming shrugged his shoulders as he envisioned the woman treasuring her beaten pot and gave a look of clarity.
“But it was something to have,” he said.
The community also stepped up to help in the days following the flood.
“Something struck me later,” Fleming said. “Once the community knew that this was a serious situation, we started getting a lot of help, especially from the college students.”
Wiggins spent the many days following the flood helping people walk through the wreckage as they searched for what few belongings they could find.
“Emotions were very high, and we get a little used to that in our line of work,” he said. “But you never get used to a loss of that capacity.”
News Managing Editor Jessi Stafford can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Fort Collins Flood of ’97 Facts
12-15 inches of rain at Hugh’s Stadium
more than 30 campus buildings damaged
54 people injured
more than 200 homes destroyed
500 recorded rescues
1,500 homes and businesses damaged
$100 million in damage at CSU
$200 million citywide damage
6:30 p.m.: Heavy rain begins.
7:20 p.m.: Flash flood watch is issued.
8 p.m.: homes begin to flood.
9:40 p.m.: flash flood warning is issued.
10:29 p.m.: Lory Student Center floods.
10:30 p.m.: The rain stops.
10:59 p.m.: Johnny’s Liquors explodes.
11:00 p.m.: trail derails and two mobile homes catch fire.
2:10 a.m.: last recorded rescue.