“I’m stuck, I’m right in the middle of it, I can’t get out...about half mile East of Drake on the highway. Tell them to get out of the low area down below. And soon as the water starts picking up … (static)… high ground… “ Colorado State Highway Patrol Sergeant Hugh Purdy’s last radio transmission at 9:15 on July 31, 1976, recorded by a dispatcher in Greeley.
A fierce, sudden, but long-lasting, thunderstorm dumped nearly 12 inches of rain in four hours in the Big Thompson River watershed on the eve of the Colorado Centennial celebration.
The river rose 19 feet above normal and raged through the narrow canyon killing 144 people, destroying 418 private residences and 52 businesses (138 other homes had additional harm), accounting for more than $35.5 million in damage.
This earned it the title of the worst natural disaster in Colorado history.
Sergeant Hugh Purdy was off duty and had been watching the Olympics with his wife at their home in Loveland, but was called by dispatcher Jay Lorance, when two of the men under his supervision were dispatched at either end of the canyon upon initial reports of rockslides on U.S. 36, according to David McComb’s 1980 book “Big Thompson: Profile of a Natural Disaster”.
Officer William Miller, who was at the upper end of the canyon near Estes Park, responded to a citizen’s report of rocks in the highway and Officer Tim Littlejohn, who, at the time of the call, was cruising just south of Fort Collins was asked to assist.
Miller became the first to officially report flash flooding when he radioed the following from the upper end of the canyon.
“Advise, we have a flood.
The whole mountainside is gone. We have people trapped on the other side. I’m going to have to move out. I’m up to my doors in water! Advise, we can’t get to them. I’m going to get out of here before I drown!”
Miller was able to abandon his car and scramble up the hillside to high ground and relative safety.
At about the same time Miller was reporting this, Purdy asked Officer Littlejohn, who had made as far as Drake in the canyon, to stop and setup a roadblock to turn travelers back down the highway. Meanwhile, Purdy continued on toward Drake.
Littlejohn armed with his loudspeaker and flashing lights tried to warn people in Drake to flee for their lives. In his car pushing through the high water, he was able to make it up the grade to Glen Haven. “The officer kept his wheels ahead of the water as it covered the roadway.
He could hear the deep rumble of large boulders as they ground together in the dark water, the clatter of rocks bounding off cliff sides, and the splintering of wooden houses. Over his radio he briefly talked to his Sergeant,” wrote McComb.
Purdy continued on to see for himself what those under his charge were reporting, but ordered an officer following to turn back and cut off entry into the canyon from below. At 9 p.m. Purdy warned of a sudden rise in the river and told the Patrol to warn those in Loveland and below the narrows of the coming surge.
His next and final transmission told of his own dire circumstances.
Purdy’s car was found crushed under a slide of rock and mud near his last known location, two miles downstream from Drake, along with eight other cars.
According to highway patrol reports, the only item that allowed identification of the patrol car was key ring found still in the ignition. His body was discovered on a sandbar, eight miles downstream.
Officer Littlejohn was able to get his patrol car to high ground and spent the night in Drake helping as he could in the aftermath of the deluge. Later, his car became a focal point for the helicopter evacuation.
“I’m grieved when I think I didn’t save more people, but how could I imagine what was coming down? I had trouble getting people to believe the feeble excuses I had, much less something of that magnitude. Now, I regret turning people back down the canyon, because we all know that anyone caught in the canyon had no chance. There was no way to foresee where the danger zones would be. Nobody really knew until it got there,” Littlejohn related in an oral history interview afterwards.
“The wall of water moved so fast that, even had Highway 34 not been washed out, the only avenue of escape was up the canyon walls.
Vehicles and buildings became death traps for unsuspecting campers,” according to reports by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Of those killed, 41 lived in the canyon. The rest were visitors to the area. Five victims reported as dead have never been found. One man reported as missing turned up, alive and well, living in Oklahoma in 2008.