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Woman shares story of survival 46 years after the Big Thompson Canyon flood

Terry Belair, who now lives in Lakewood, spent the night of July 31, 1976 on a ledge in the Big Thompson Canyon after escaping a car with her friend.

LAKEWOOD, Colo. — Newspapers covered Terry Belair's kitchen at her home in Lakewood. 

“Gosh, probably about 100?" she said, estimating the number of articles she has collected. 

The articles shared stories of one of Colorado's deadliest floods, and the recovery for years after. 

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, 12 inches of rainfall in just a matter of hours caused a major flood in the Big Thompson River on July 31, 1976. 

144 people lost their lives, including two officers trying to evacuate residents.

The flood also caused over $35 million in damages to 418 homes and businesses, 438 automobiles, bridges, paved and unpaved roads, mobile homes, power lines and other structures.

For Terry Belair, she and her friend from high school, Connie, were some of the people rescued by helicopter the morning after the flood. 

Credit: FILE
A home is seen damaged following the Big Thompson Canyon Flood.

Story of survival

Terry and her friend Connie went into the Big Thompson Canyon on July 31, 1976. 

Terry had just graduated from Berthoud High School and was joining Connie for a work party in the canyon. 

After making a stop in Estes Park for food, they started making the journey back to the Loveland area, when torrential downpours started. 

 “It was just kind of raining so hard it was just muddy," she said. 

Quickly, Belair recalls her friend's car taking on water, hitting the tires.

“If you open the door and the water’s hitting the tires and it’s still raining really really hard…don’t stay in the car," she said.

Not sure what to do, Terry said they abandoned the car and started climbing the nearest mountain they could find, grabbing onto anything they could. 

Once they reached higher ground, it was dark. 

Only lightning strikes and the noise of the storm, Belair recalls, gave them glimpses at the situation down below. 

“We heard loud sounds of scraping noises – like houses going by or big pipes going down…just the water carrying things…and then scraping against the rocks,” she said. “It was sad when we were sitting on our ledge and saw that the water was coming down. We could kind of see through the thunder – her car kind of starting to bob and then just get washed away…”

They spent the night on a ledge they found. 

Credit: Luis de Leon
An image of Highway 34 washed out in the Big Thompson Canyon.

The next morning, Belair said they found an abandoned cabin on the hill they climbed for shelter, when they started to hear the sounds of helicopters. 

"So we kinda ran out -- we were just trying to get somebody’s attention," she said.

The smaller helicopter rescued them, lifting them to a spot off Highway 34 that was still intact, where a larger helicopter brought them to a high school in Loveland to be reunited with their families. 

But Belair took something with her to serve as a reminder of her luck: a piece of the broken road. 

“It’s just a reminder for me that we made it – survived – we were lucky," she said. 

Credit: Luis de Leon
A piece of Highway 34 that Terry Belair says was broken off after the Big Thompson Canyon Flood in 1976.

A message of caution

Today, a memorial stands off Highway 34, just a few miles from the town of Drake, honoring the lives lost that day.  

The group, Big Thompson Flood Memorial, Inc., also has awarded scholarships in the past to relatives of the victims of the flood. 

There's also a website dedicated to the memorial and the history of the flood, which had initially posted of a scheduled visiting period to help honor the victims on the 45th anniversary.

Belair said she visits it sometimes, but the memories of that night stick with her during other times of her life, and has a message of diligence amid flash flooding seemingly happening more often. 

“If you see things washing down the side of the hill…take heed," she said.

Credit: Luis de Leon
Terry Belair (left) stands with her sister Tracy VanWoert.

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