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Colorado landslide survivor, a 13-year-old girl, says dad shielded her

October 01, 2013|By Jenny Deam | This post has been updated, as indicated below.

JEFFERSON COUNTY, Colo. – The five hikers killed in a landslide that sent 100-ton boulders careening down a mountain were all members of one family, officials said, and the only survivor was a 13-year-old girl whose father threw himself over her body.

The avalanche of rocks and boulders, some as large as cars, broke away without warning near Mt. Princeton in central Colorado and slammed into a popular waterfall viewing area Monday.

In a 911 call released Tuesday, a hiker told a dispatcher that it looked as if "a whole chunk of the mountain came down."

Only Gracie Johnson, 13, survived. She was pulled from the rubble by a Chaffee County sheriff’s deputy who arrived at the scene and saw a small hand poking out from under a pile of rocks. The girl, who was airlifted to a Denver-area hospital with a broken leg, told rescuers her father threw himself over her as the rocks began to fall.

Her father, Dwayne Johnson, 46, and her mother, Dawna Johnson, 45, and her sister, Kiowa-Rain Johnson, who had just turned 18, died, said Monica Broaddus, a public information officer with the Chaffee County Sheriff’s Department. The Johnsons were from Buena Vista, Colo. Two cousins, Baigen Walker, 10, and Paris Walkup, 22, both from Birch Tree, Mo., were also killed, she said.

Dwayne Johnson was a football coach and Dawna Johnson coached track at Buena Vista High School, eight miles from the rock slide. Local schools were to hold a candlelight vigil Tuesday to honor the family.

Brian Dengler, executive pastor at Cornerstone Church, where Dwayne Johnson was baptized six months ago, told The Times that the town of about 2,000 was grief-stricken by the loss of a family that had been a fixture in the community.

"We are waking up to a different world," he said. "What does it look like, what does it feel like to not have this family with us anymore? That is what everyone is asking."

The rock slide occurred near the base of Agnes Vaille Falls in the Pike and San Isabel National Forests, about 2-½ hours southwest of Denver. The family was killed about a mile from a trail head. The easy stroll to the viewing area is a popular hike for tourists and locals and is considered "family friendly," Broaddus said.

Rescuers had to leave the bodies under the rocks temporarily because the ground was too unstable, creating dangerous conditions. Because of the precarious terrain, heavy equipment could not be used to move the enormous rocks, officials said, so all of the bodies had to be dug out by hand.

Chaffee County Undersheriff John Spezze told The Times that the bodies of the five victims were recovered about 1 p.m. It took about two and a half hours of grim work, Spezze said, adding that many of the workers were volunteers who fought to keep their composure.

The accident has elicited horror and disbelief. "There was just no indication that this could happen there," the undersheriff said.

Authorities don't know what caused the slide, but they have speculated that the historic rains that drenched Colorado – causing deadly flooding in other parts of the state – may have contributed.

The magnitude and location of the slide were unusual, Broaddus said. She said the cascading boulders cut a path 70 to 80 feet wide. Witnesses reported a swath the size of a football field torn from the mountainside.

[Updated, 5:39 p.m., Oct. 1: This post has been updated to reflect the fact that the bodies have been recovered.]

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