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Louisville fifth graders, parents recount helicopter rescue from Cal-Wood

Makayla Dannelly remembers the deafening noise and bird’s-eye view as she was evacuated in a Chinook helicopter after being stranded as a fifth grader at the Cal-Wood Education Center near Jamestown during the September 2013 flood.

A helicopter lands at Cal-Wood Education Center near Jamestown in September 2013 during an effort to evacuate about 80 Fireside Elementary students. (Lori Haynes-Bright - Courtesy Photo)
A helicopter lands at Cal-Wood Education Center near Jamestown in September 2013 during an effort to evacuate about 80 Fireside Elementary students.(Lori Haynes-Bright – Courtesy Photo)

She recalled feeling a little nervous about boarding a helicopter, but wasn’t “nearly as freaked out as some of the other kids in my class.” Mainly, she said, she remembers the excitement of flying in the oversized copter with an open back.

“It was so cool,” said Dannelly, who is now 20 and a junior at Black Hills State University in South Dakota. “It’s this huge loud thing. It was one of those memories that will always have a clear picture in my head. It was so awesome that that’s the way we got home.”

The Cal-Wood students were flown to Boulder Municipal Airport, then bused to their Louisville elementary school to reunite with their families. A Daily Camera photographer snapped a photo of Dannelly’s mom wrapping her in a hug at the school.

“She was so worried,” Dannelly said. “I remember giving her a hard time. I remember in that moment I was like, ‘Mom, you are embarrassing me.’”

Dannelly was among about 85 Fireside Elementary students and 14 adults rescued by the National Guard when floodwaters washed out roads around Cal-Wood, which was hosting the fifth graders for an outdoor education trip.

The National Guard also evacuated about 250 people from Jamestown by helicopter and used trucks to evacuate another 2,500 people from Lyons. The two towns were cut off from help in the early days of the flood.

Cal-Wood Executive Director Rafael Salgado, who lives on site, said a neighbor woke him about 4 a.m. Sept. 12, a Thursday, to share news of the overnight flood. He, in turn, told the teachers and parents, letting them know it might be days before school buses could get through on County Road 87 to take the students home.

“It was pretty intense stuff,” he said. “It was a while ago, but when you live it, it stays with you for a long time. I can still picture those kids’ faces when I told them the news.”

Fireside teacher Shannon Burgert, who was on her first Cal-Wood trip when the flood hit, remembers walking into the office area in the lodge about 5:30 a.m. Sept. 12 and hearing Salgado on a two-way radio telling someone he needed to notify the school district. Her stomach dropped, she said, because she thought someone was hurt.

Once he explained about the flooding, she was relieved.

“No one was hurt here, and we had what we needed,” she said. “It was just a matter of how to get home.”

Cal-Wood didn’t have phone or internet service at the lodge and was using generators for electricity. Salgado remembers climbing one of the nearby peaks to get cellphone reception. An employee used a borrowed two-way radio to communicate with Salgado, then relayed the information to Fireside Elementary’s principal as the evacuation plans developed.

Burgert said staying dry and communication were big challenges. The morning of Sept. 13, two of the dads who were chaperones hiked around to find a location with cell phone reception. Finding one, they arranged for Burgert to talk to the principal at noon.

“I ran up a mountain to get there in time,” Burgert said, adding she hadn’t told her family she would be gone since it was such a short trip and so was surprised to see dozens of texts and voicemails on her phone when she got a connection.

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