BUENA VISTA, Colo. — Friends preparing to bury five relatives who died in a Colorado rock slide are remembering the father credited for saving his daughter’s life as a selfless volunteer who probably didn’t flinch to jump in front of cascading boulders to protect his daughter.
Thirteen-year-old Gracie Johnson says her father, Dwayne Johnson, covered her when a rock slide crashed down on the family on a popular hiking route to see a waterfall with visiting cousins. The action, according to local law enforcement, made the teen girl the only survivor in the group after Monday’s slide.
Gracie’s parents and sister from nearby Buena Vista were killed, as were two of her cousins from Missouri.
Family friend Mike Carr of Buena Vista said Dwayne Johnson was quick to help others.
“Probably his only regret is that he didn’t jump in front of his whole family. He’s just that type of guy,” said Carr, who joined others at a candlelight vigil Tuesday night at Buena Vista High School’s football field.
The sheriff’s department identified the dead as Dwayne Johnson, 46, and Dawna Johnson, 45, Gracie’s parents; and her 18-year-old sister, Kiowa-Rain Johnson.
The other victims were identified as Baigen (BAY’-gun) Walker, 10, and Paris Walkup, 22, both of Birch Tree, Mo. They were nephews of Dwayne and Dawna Johnson.
All five bodies were recovered Tuesday afternoon and identified by a family member, Sheriff Pete Palmer said. Palmer said the coroner will make the final, formal identification.
A memorial service for the Johnsons was set for Saturday at the high school gym, to be followed by a community meal; separate services were being organized for the nephews in Missouri. Buena Vista’s Cornerstone Church also set up a fund for the family.
Carr said the Johnsons loved the Agnes Vaille trail and the view of the falls in Chalk Creek Canyon, and frequently brought visiting guests to see the falls.
“This is part of living here — when you have a nice day, you take the opportunity to enjoy the day, the colors,” Carr said.
“They were in the wrong place at the wrong time doing the right thing, and that is spending time with your family.”
Local officials have asked the U.S. Forest Service, which maintains the trail, to close it permanently.
What triggered the slide is still under investigation. The area had heavy summer rain and a recent snowfall.
Rain or melting snow can make slides more likely by weakening a steep slope and making the rocks and soil heavier, said Jerry Higgins, an associate professor of geological engineering at the Colorado School of Mines in Golden.
With enough data, geologists can identify slopes that are susceptible to slides, Higgins said, but finding all of them would be a massive undertaking.
“In Colorado, there’s a lot of steep slopes, and I don’t think anybody’s got the money to pay for the studies for all the steep slopes,” he said.
Witnesses said some of the boulders were the size of cars. A hiker who heard the slide in Chalk Creek Canyon ran down the trail and called for help.