Remembering July 6, 1994
The regular Sunday morning jaunt at Two Rivers Park had just been completed as I watched my running partner drift away in the distance as he looped back toward his house. The eastern sun was getting ready to peek over the mountains to greet another spring day after a light rain had just fallen on a beautiful April morning. I wasn’t quite ready to get into the confines of my car and drive home just yet, so I ventured down the sidewalk toward the river, to a place that I am ashamed to admit I had never visited before.
Obviously, I had been to the park on many occasions in the last 23 years since a raging fire swept into Glenwood Springs and touched its unwanted torrents of heat and smoke on land, property and human lives. Several trips to the park were made to run, ride my bike and play softball, but I had never paid a visit to the memorial where 14 spirits of the past are honored.
You all know the story. Fourteen firefighters lost their lives on Storm King Mountain on the day of July 6, 1994. They were trapped in a sea of flames, on a mountain far from home, as winds shifted all around them, and ultimately, there was no finding an escape route. Nowhere to run.
My house, which is still standing, thanks to those brave men and women, is nestled near the base of that big mountain in West Glenwood. The still mostly bald top of Storm King is a daily reminder to me what took place that day as I was with a group of basketball players at the Mesa College basketball camp in Grand Junction.
We had heard that a fire had broken out near our hometown, but none of us realized to what extent, or what the consequences would end up being. The late afternoon of July 6, I was on one of the outdoor courts working with a couple of my players when I noticed camp director Doug Schakel and his assistant Jim Heaps heading in my direction with grim looks on their faces. Initially, I feared something had happened with a member of my family until Schakel asked if I had talked to anyone in Glenwood that day, and suggested that I phone someone immediately. The people at camp had been told that parts of western Glenwood were being evacuated due to the fire, which had continued to escalate, and was now out of control. Following a rush to the dorm to make several phone calls home — which were unanswered — I notified my assistant Rich Law what was going on, and I took off in the school district van just before sunset.
The sight I saw that evening driving into Glenwood from Canyon Creek on is permanently etched in my memory. The west side of Storm King looked like a ball of fire as trees near the road were ablaze. My heart dropped as I realized that my home surely was gone. The exit in West Glenwood took me north toward my house, and I hurried through two check stations, telling the officers positioned there that my home was just up the road, and I was going in.
Not only was my house still standing, but my buddy since we shared a rug in Ms. Bertholf’s kindergarten class, Scott Bolitho, was there boxing up some valuables for me. I didn’t have many valuables back then, and I still don’t to this day, other than my three-legged cat Charlotte, but I gave Scotty a hug anyway. The smell of smoke in my house was unbearable as I stayed up that entire night watching the west side of Storm King from my deck.
Those who remember can tell you an eerie July chill fell over Glenwood that evening. I do believe maybe someone upstairs felt enough heartache had been bestowed on these folks for one day. The heaven-sent mid-summer drop in temperature seemed to smother the fire’s momentum as the onrushing flames were slowed considerably that night.
I remembered everything about that day long ago as I walked into the memorial and saw the names, faces, and stories of the Storm King Fourteen. Many were from Oregon here helping us. I read about each one of them, and I stared at their pictures long and hard.
You see, I don’t really believe that people die, at least not their spirit. Our bodies become old and used up, but I do believe the truly good spirits get to continue to exist wherever they so choose. I can’t tell you exactly why, but I felt like those brave firefighters, the Hotshots, knew I was there with them that morning. So many young faces, just like mine in 1994, looked back at me as I soaked in the immense aura of where I was visiting. I let them all know that I was grateful for what they had done. The families and loved ones they left behind. That I was grateful for each day I am given, being able to run, think, see, be with young people and old, and just to be present on this earth.
As I walked back to my car, I turned to the west and noticed the sun was touching the top of that big mountain. I’ve heard several times the old saying that if you forget the past, you are condemned to repeat it, but many times, remembering the good times and sacrifices of the past, is the only way to keep us grounded and thankful in the present.
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Reporter Ray K. Erku can be reached at 612-423-5273 or email@example.com