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Big T couple recounts flood survival tale

4:32 PM, Sep 16, 2013   |    comments
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FORT COLLINS - The "most brave man in the world" is out there, but Mike Horn doesn't know his last name.

To Horn, his wife's savior is simply Wes, a 20-something-year-old with the stamina of the Energizer bunny who weighs not 140 pounds.

By all accounts, the young man shouldn't have jumped into the Big Thompson's raging waters early Friday morning, Horn said, but he he's grateful he did. That risk meant Florence Horn survived and their 38 years of marriage would go on.

For more than two decades, the Horns have lived in what they were told - and believed - was a "flood proof" house, built on piers in a 100-year flood plain in place of another house destroyed by the deadly 1976 Big Thompson flood. Someone would have had to drag Mike's body from that place; in the not-so-distant past, he'd never leave voluntarily.

Things are different now.

Surrounded by a grassy lawn and 29 trees, it was one of about nine homes located along the river in the Cedar Cove subdivision, east of Estes Park and less than a mile from U.S. 34. Longtime landmark Colorado Cherry Company, known for its cider, isn't far away.

Cedar Cove is also the area from which crews rescued 100 people Tuesday, the Larimer County Sheriff's Office tweeted.

At 6:30 a.m. Thursday, the Big Thompson had swelled about halfway up their yard. Nearby smaller Cedar Creek, too, had crested the narrow bridge traversing its waters. It was the point neighbors knew they couldn't get out.

A reverse 911 call came through around 8 a.m. warning residents things could get bad, Mike Horn said. It wasn't an evacuation notice, but the people of Cedar Cove packed important belongings and moved vehicles up the mountainside to higher ground.

About four houses down, the Horn's neighbor 60-year-old neighbor had MS and used a cane. The couple walked down to get her and, when they arrived, the water was ankle-deep. In the hour she gathered her things, waters on the road outside ran five-feet deep, whisking bits of trees and lumber away.

"I knew right then we weren't going to be able to get to the high road," Mike Horn said Tuesday morning, tears in his eyes and fingers entwined with Florence's, which rested within the railing of her hospital bed at Medical Center of the Rockies.

Mike has lost track of times, but about 7 or 8 p.m. he said the house lost phone service. Periodically, he would go out on the deck and shine his flashlight toward a group of neighbors gathered along U.S. 34 to let them know the trio was there. The power went out around midnight - that's the point "things were getting really bad."

A "good size" shed washed by. The three sought shelter in the bathroom, Florence, in a claw foot, cast iron tub. Water cracked through the glass door looking into the laundry room. Then a tree fell and sheared away the attached garage.

"I told them it wouldn't be long until we were in the water," said Mike, who was certain they wouldn't make it out alive. "About 10 minutes later, the house kinda turned to liquid."

They don't know what happened to their neighbor, but the Horns were swept through a side wall. Mike went over the deck, and Florence under. The tub flipped and likely crushed Florence's leg, breaking it below the knee, said Mike, who, at one point, lifted the leg of his gray sweatpants to reveal red gashes along the length of his right shin and calf.

By best estimates, they were tossed down the river a half-, maybe three-quarters of a mile through "nothing friendly." Floodwaters are like a blender, they agreed. Drop bits of wood and houses and rocks and silt into already turbulent waters and mix it up.

Screaming, Florence grabbed onto a 20-foot chunk of house sharp with nails. Mike was thrown out of dark, twisting waters onto a pad of silt. Through mud-filled eyes, he went up a nearby tree "like a squirrel," found a limb and hung there, "buck naked," by the hands of the river.

Sometime later, he's not sure, Mike saw hectic flashlight beams coming down the river and knew they were looking for someone he could only hope was Florence. Then a backhoe drove by. He would later learn Florence was in the backhoe's bucket; "they were saving my wife."

Barely talking above a whisper, Florence interjected: "But the guy who save me," she said, trailing off. Mike smiled at her, and said, "I'll tell them," he said, returning to the tale.

Unable to shout, Mike wiped his hands clean and whistled once. A flashlight beam immediately found his spot in the tree, and a man asked Mike if he was all right; was he married? He said he was, and the man said they had rescued woman with blonde hair and a broken leg.

He asked Mike if he could hang on for a couple hours, until they could free him from the tree. Knowing Florence was alive, he said he could have held on until Christmas.

A volunteer firefighter named Tim and woman (Her name was Janicka. Not knowing how to spell it, Mike said "A-N-G-E-L.") with only a stethoscope watched over Florence for the next few hours at a home in a nearby subdivision, Grouse Hollow. Hours later, the couple caught a ride out in a National Guard helicopter to Christman Field, in west Fort Collins, where EMTs were waiting to take Florence to Medical Center of the Rockies by ambulance.

And Wes? Did they get to say goodbye?

Wes was at the Grouse Hollow house Friday morning, his basset hound at his side and helmet camera atop his head.

"I hugged him so hard the next day, I think I broke a rib," said Mike, looking dearly at his wife, who will go likely into surgery later this week, once the swelling goes down.

At 60 and 56, respectively, Mike and Florence don't know what's ahead. You know that saying where someone has lost everything but the clothes on their back?

"We lost everything, including the clothes on our backs," said Mike, who believes this flood is "five times" worse than the 1976 Big Thompson flood that claimed 144 lives and injured 250.

Even having lost their beloved, 21-year-old cat, Rascal, they'll survive. Because they have each other.

And it's all because of the people whose last names Mike wishes he could remember. The Tim's, the Janicka's and Wes's of the world.

(Copyright © 2013 Fort Collins Coloradoan, All Rights Reserved)

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