Massive search leads to body of missing Eagle County deputy
Tayler Esslinger, 26, an Eagle County Sheriff’s deputy and volunteer firefighter, had been missing since Tuesday
GYPSUM — Tayler Esslinger spent his short life serving his community, and he started young.
The Eagle County Sheriff’s deputy spent 12 years as a volunteer firefighter with the Gypsum Fire Protection District. Impressive even for an overachiever who graduated Eagle Valley High School in 2012.
“Tayler loves this community so much. He dedicated his life to it. Help keep him alive and what he gave to all of us,” his wife Vanessa said tearfully during a community briefing Friday evening at Eagle Valley High School.
Esslinger, 26, was found dead in his truck Friday morning.
So young, so skilled
He was so skilled as a firefighter that Gypsum Fire Chief Justin Kirkland made him an engineer, the one who drives large trucks at high speeds straight into the teeth of what could be mortal danger.
On Friday, Kirkland and his entire department wore black shrouds over their badges in Esslinger’s honor. They barely had time to misplace those shrouds in the three months since they shrouded their badges to honor Eric Hill, a Gypsum firefighter who died working for the Colorado Department of Transportation during a winter storm last March.
Before Esslinger and Hill, Gypsum’s department lost firefighter Nate Blaser in Nov. 2014.
A few minutes after Esslinger’s truck was located, Kirkland summoned his crew to a private room in the firehouse to share yet more bad news about a fallen brother.
“We appreciate the droves of people willing to go into the backcountry and spend days endlessly searching,” Kirkland told the crowd at Friday night’s community briefing crowd. “Tayler was at our very center and will be sorely missed.”
Esslinger was found near Willow Creek on Deep Creek Road in the eastern edge of Garfield County. HAATS helicopters ascended into the bright blue Colorado sky, spotting his black Dodge Ram at 9:35 a.m. Friday. First responders hustled to the truck and found Esslinger in it. The cause of death is still under investigation, said Garfield County Coroner Rob Glassmire.
Massive volunteer search effort
Esslinger’s last human contact was a cell phone ping around 4 a.m Tuesday. Family and friends started searching the area that morning. The search gained steam and by Friday more than 75 volunteers showed up after local law enforcement asked for help, some from as far away as Castle Rock. They poured into the backcountry in four-wheel drive vehicles, ATVs, dirt bikes, on horseback and on foot. Fifteen-year-old Logan Trujillo rode his KTM 250 dirt bike. One of his Eagle Valley High School teachers fussed over him a little, making sure he was carrying plenty of water.
The Salvation Army’s mobile kitchen rolled in to make sure the searchers had the fuel they needed.
HAATS helicopters took to the air, as did spotter planes geared up with all kinds of search equipment.
All search teams were recalled from their field efforts after Esslinger’s truck was found, the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office said.
“While it was not the outcome we had all been hoping and praying for, these last few days have shown how the circumstances of one individual can pull us together to make us all stronger,” Eagle County Sheriff James van Beek said, reading from a prepared statement as his eyes welled up a little. “The love and support this community has shown in the search for Tayler has been beyond words. This support has been a comfort to his family, friends, coworkers, and the entire community.”
Local born and raised
Esslinger was born and raised in Eagle County and graduated Eagle Valley High School, just a few yards down the hill from the Gypsum firehouse where the searchers were gathered and briefed Friday morning. Many knew Esslinger. Some didn’t. They knew help was needed, and that’s all they needed to know.
Doug Cupp, Greater Eagle Fire Protection District chief, was the operations section chief.
“We wouldn’t be able to do this without all these volunteers,” Cupp said. “It’s great to see the community rise to this.”
The search was systematic and organized, said Ross Wilmore with the Northwest Colorado Incident Management Team.
Searchers were assigned to areas they knew. Hunters and outfitters offered information and wisdom about the area where Esslinger was last known to be.
“We offer our sincerest condolences to the Esslinger family, extended family, and friends. We ask that you respect the family’s privacy during this sorrowful time,” van Beek said.
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Highway 82 over Independence Pass reopened Tuesday morning at 10:30 a.m. after an overnight closure for safety reasons, according to the Colorado Department of Transportation.