DENVER – If there’s a silver lining in the storm clouds that flooded Colorado, it’s the hundreds of people, children and family pets who were evacuated to safety. Among them were elementary school students who were participating in outdoor education studies.
Douglas County School District’s outdoor education field trip is annual Rocky Mountain National Forest treat for sixth graders, but the adventure took a frightening turn when the storm erupted and flooded Estes Park.
The 87 students and their chaperones from Pine Grove Elementary School in Parker were stranded at the YMCA of the Rockies.
Back home, Douglas County School District (DCSD) officials saw a break in the storm forecasted for Sept. 13 and quickly organized an effort to bring the students home. The next challenge was finding an accessible route to the camp – State Highways 34 and 36 were closed because of heavy damages.
The high-altitude Trail Ridge Road – a summer scenic route from Grand Lake to Estes Park – was the only alternative for the convoy of 15 SUVs, 2 small activity buses and a service truck. DCSD in cooperation with the Douglas County Sheriff’s Department were able to gain permission for the convoy to access the road, which was only open to people evacuating Estes Park.
While the convoy traversed Trail Ridge Road, which Arapahoe Indians named “taienbaa” for “where the children walked,” the YMCA dispatched front-end loaders to clear the debris and mud in order to truck the students and chaperones to the Rocky Mountain Church, a safe evacuation point in Estes Park.
“It was a four-hour trek and we knew that there was some interesting weather ahead and we needed to get up there,” Molly Gnaegy, principal of Pine Grove Elementary School, told Fox News.
“(When) they hugged me, wouldn’t let go, I knew that it was time and that it had definitely become an emergency situation,” said Gnaegy. “We were so thankful for all the support and teamwork that it took to get us all back down.”
By 1 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 14, the group arrived in Parker where overjoyed parents and school staff burst into applause and cheers. As it turned out, that window of opportunity to rescue the children was short – just days later Trail Ridge Road was closed because of snow.
“We first want to thank the parents and staff that were with our kids during the trip and did a tremendous job of taking care of their needs,” said Gnaegy in a statement to the parents. “Next, our office staff did a tremendous job of coordinating communication, including keeping our families informed of the situation.”
In devastated Jamestown, 85 fifth graders and several teachers from Fireside Elementary School in Louisville were stranded at Cal-Wood Education Center. The raging floodwaters had ravaged roadways and bridges, cutting off vehicle access to the mountain community.
As a diversion to the crisis, the teachers organized a dance party for the children – and dished up tacos.
The Colorado National Guard flew helicopters into the isolated area Sept. 16 to rescue the children who were flown to Boulder Municipal Airport and then bused to Louisville where waiting families burst into tears and cheers.
Cal-Wood Education Center and Fireside Elementary School officials kept the children’s parents informed throughout the crisis.
Several children said the highlight of their mountain experience were those cool copters.