I don’t usually post articles in this blog that have appeared in the print edition of the Reporter Herald. But I’ve had so many comments about this article that thought I’d run it for readers who might otherwise have missed it.
It’s July again and memories of the 1976 Big Thompson flood resurface as they do every year at this time.
Back then, I was a therapist at the Larimer County Mental Health Clinic. The day after the flood, I was asked to help at the temporary morgue at Loveland Memorial Hospital.
My job was to ask survivors for physical descriptions of missing family or friends so bodies could be identified. “I don’t know how to do this, but I’ll give it my best shot,” I said to myself.
One story in particular stays in my mine—that of the first gentleman to come to the morgue—Bob Graham
Bob told me his two-year-old daughter Lisa was missing in the flood. “I’d just bathed and dressed her in her night clothes when the flood hit,” he said.
As Bob described his daughter I could almost smell the sweetness of a freshly bathed two-year- old. I thought to myself, “A toddler wrapped in a bath towel is Heaven itself.
I started to tell Bob that someone would contact him when we have more information when he said, “But there’s more.”
Bob went on to tell me his wife, Beverly, his nine-year-old daughter, Teresa, and his mother, Clara, were also missing.
“This can’t be happening,” I thought as Bob told me about his family—taken away in a split second.
Looking back, I wonder, “Why didn’t I wrap my arms around him when he told me his story? Why didn’t I wrap my arms around every person who came looking for missing family or friends?”
Over the years I’ve wondered how Bob was doing. I reached him by telephone last month. After re-introducing myself, I blurted out something about hoping I’d been compassionate when I interviewed him 38 years ago.
It’s clear this phone call was about my own healing as much as it was to get in touch with Bob.
Since the flood, Bob remarried and has children and grandchildren from his second marriage. He is now retired and living in Greeley.
It takes courage and trust to embrace life after a loss of such magnitude—but that’s what Bob has done.
Since our initial phone call a month ago, Bob and I talked several times. Bob recounted the horror of the 1976 Flood. “We had no warning—but I knew we had to get to higher ground,” he said.
“Beverly and the children only about 50 to 60 feet from the house when I started back to get some jeans.”
“As I approached the house, the first surge pf debris—parts of a brick building, cars, rocks—came down a narrow gorge.”
“Somehow—with the strength you have in emergencies– I hoisted myself onto the roof of our house—barely escaping the deluge.”
It was this surge that took his young family.
Bob spent the night on the roof of the house, as mud, parts of pick-up trucks and propane tanks roared down the gorge. “Boulders bounced like giant bowling balls as they came down.”
“The propane tanks made an eerie noise, whistling and bubbling as they submerged and emerged in the water,” he recalls.
In one of my recent phone conversations with Bob, we talked about day-to-day things. Bob told me that he and his wife Michele were remodeling their kitchen.
What is more renewing than a new kitchen—with all the life giving meals, love and laughter it will hold?
Yes, in spite of the losses he endured, Bob went on to build a love-filled life. It’s what we do with our pain that is transforming.
One way we can all honor those lost in the 1976 flood and those who survived is by attending the annual Big Thompson Flood Memorial Service held every year on July 31st.