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Motorist west of Colorado Springs had only seconds to react as flood swept over highway

August 11, 2013 Updated: August 12, 2013 at 7:49 am
photo - Highway 24 was open in both directions Sunday, August 11, 2013. Photo by Junfu Han. The Gazette.
Highway 24 was open in both directions Sunday, August 11, 2013. Photo by Junfu Han. The Gazette. 

She saw dry ground and booked it.

A Cascade woman trapped Friday by a deadly torrent of water on U.S. 24 says she bailed from her Nissan Versa and scrambled up a rocky cliff to safety - stopping only to help another stranded driver onto the rocks.

"I grabbed her hand and pulled her up," recalled Kathryn Presnal, a principal at the Bijou School in Colorado Springs. "We stood there and watched our cars float away."

Two days after her near miss, Presnal, a daily commuter through the area, is among those asking: Will it be any different next time?

The issue of how best to monitor threat levels on flood-prone Highway 24 is among the major concerns emerging from Friday evening's disastrous flood in the foothills west of Colorado Springs. But according to state transportation officials, options are limited when it comes to Colorado's sudden storms.

"We can't control Mother Nature," said Kenny Quintana, a Colorado Department of Transportation maintenance supervisor who noted the area has been subject to many flood advisories, watches and warnings that failed to materialize since the Waldo Canyon wildfire left the area more susceptible to severe flooding.

Under normal circumstances, the CDOT monitors weather forecasts and uses electronic rain gauges set up in Waldo Canyon as an early warning system.

In the event of heavy rain, the CDOT dispatches a highway worker to Waldo Canyon to monitor for problems, and coordinates with the Colorado State Patrol to have a trooper posted at an observation point along the highway.

In the case of Friday's flood, however, the storm developed with little warning - essentially outrunning the CDOT response.

A National Weather Service flood advisory was issued just 15 minutes before flood waters reached the highway, Quintana said. The CDOT rain gauges sent automated emails and text messages at some point after that.

"We didn't have time to get up there," Quintana said. "There was no warning."

The section of Highway 24 where highway officials say at least 20 cars were swept away, including Presnal's, is also where the storm claimed a casualty.

The body of John Collins, 53, of Divide, was found buried under debris along the road. Authorities say they do not know if he got out of the car or was thrown by the force of the roiling black water emanating from Waldo Canyon.

Transportation officials will meet this week for a review of the events and discussions on whether more can be done to keep motorists safe, said CDOT spokesman Bob Wilson, who said the department must also avoid closing the area needlessly.

Highway 24 is a key transportation corridor between Colorado Springs and communities nestled at higher elevations throughout the Front Range.

One person reported missing after the storm was still being sought on Sunday, the El Paso County Sheriff's Office said. A homeless man also believed missing was found OK by his mother, authorities announced Sunday, without providing further details.

According to Quintana, who was on scene directing highway clean-up efforts, the flood had two distinct sources.

Flooding in Waldo Canyon was the source of the torrent on U.S. 24, and necessitated an all-night effort to remove tons of rocks, boulders and debris. The water that deluged Manitou Springs came from Williams Canyon, Quintana said.

Recovery efforts are ongoing in Manitou, where six homes were destroyed, 11 seriously damaged, and at least 20 businesses flooded.

Flooding became a persistent threat in the area after the Waldo Canyon fire ravaged the area in the summer of 2012, creating a denuded landscape that repels rather than absorbs water, contributing to sudden deluges.

Presnal, who was westbound on 24, headed for home, said she had "three seconds to react" after seeing vehicles ahead swept sideways by the water near the entrance to Cave of the Winds.

Spotting a ribbon of earth unaffected by flooding - her only escape route - she scooted to the passenger seat, exited and ran to the cliff.

She helped another woman rock scramble to safety, and together they watched helplessly as their vehicles were swept away along with other motorists. After floodwaters receded, Presnal accompanied a Colorado State trooper on a hunt for her vehicle, which she found, totaled, a quarter-mile away.

It was a chaotic scene on Highway 24, recalled Ben Tilghman of Divide, who was briefly stranded in the same area in a Subaru Outback.

After realizing that he was out of the path of the coursing water, Tilghman, an optician, said he directed his attentions to an older man who exited his water-logged car in a panic - stepping directly into the current. The drama was caught on video by another driver who was stranded nearby.

"He takes two steps and then he goes down, because the water's too high, too fast," said Tilghman, who said vehicles were streaming past the man's vehicle "like they were on an inner tube."

After the man got up, Tilghman gestured for him to get in his car - leading to a second dramatic rescue in the area.

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