Forest Service says Agnes Vaille Falls, site of deadly rock slide, closed at least until spring

CHAFFEE COUNTY, Colo. - The U.S. Forest Service says a popular Colorado trail where a rockslide killed five members of the same family will remain closed at least until spring.

John Peterson, deputy supervisor for the San Isabel National Forest, said Wednesday that Forest Service experts must inspect the site at Agnes Vaille Falls to see if it's feasible and safe to rebuild the trail.

He says that won't happen until after the coming winter.

A rock slide buried the trail Monday, killing five people -- Dwayne Johnson, 46; his wife Dawna Johnson, 45; and their daughter, Kiowa-Rain Johnson, 18, all of Buena Vista. Also killed were Dawna's nephews, 10-year-old Baigen Walker and 22-year-old Paris Walkup, who were visiting from Birch Tree, Missouri.

The lone survivor of the slide, 13-year-old Gracie Johnson, said her father shielded her with his body when boulders the size of cars tumbled down the cliff, causing a rock slide several football fields long. She is hospitalized with a broken leg.

Gracie's older brother, Dakota Johnson, and her grandmother and uncle are with her as she recovers from a compound fracture.

Chaffee County Undersheriff John Spezze said the trail should be closed permanently.

 

-- Johnson family well-known, loved in Buena Vista --

The Johnson family is well-known and beloved in Buena Vista. Residents of the small town are devastated by the news.

Dawna Johnson was the track coach and Dwayne Johnson was a volunteer football coach at Buena Vista High School. Dwayne worked as an electrician and landscaper around town and Dawna worked at several restaurants.

Carr said Dawna had a "very independent spirit."

"Dawna was a fantastic photographer that was her hobby but she was also a very, very hard worker, usually worked a couple jobs for the family," Carr said. "Probably where she really shone was on the track team with those girls that she coached. She was a relay teams coach and she would get those girls together and take them to state every year."

Kiowa-Rain was a senior at Buena Vista High School, celebrated her 18th birthday over the weekend, and was recently nominated homecoming queen.

"These kids are all very much a reflection of their parents, very independent but one of the most tight-knit families that you can imagine," Carr said.

Dawna's nephews, half-brothers Baigen and Paris, had just arrived in Colorado over the weekend for vacation but they visited often.

"They just loved this area. It was one of their favorite places on earth," Carr said.

Paris had just graduated from nursing school and just started his career in the Kansas City area. He played college football and was looking to move out to Colorado.

Baigen was an energetic 10-year-old who loved Jiu Jitsu and enjoyed life to the fullest, his family said.

Carr said that the family had hiked to the falls early in the day  Monday because they wanted to get back for Gracie's test at 1 p.m.

"They were taking advantage of the nice day and the (fall) colors, but it was unfortunate timing," Carr said.

-- Agnes Vaille Trail--

The Agnes Vaille Trail is popular with visitors and especially families because it is just a half mile from the trailhead to the falls. Families also enjoyed playing in the creek downstream from the falls.

However, few people realized the rocks and boulders they were hiking and scrambling over at the falls, came from the cliffs surrounding the trail.

The area was so unstable after the rockslide on Monday, rescuers had to wait until Tuesday to recover the victims.

Spezze said the size of the slide was stunning. One huge boulder was 10-feet-high and 8-feet-wide and estimated to weigh more than 100 tons.

The sheriff said Tuesday that it appears the rocks fell from the area below and to the left of the falls.

"We don’t have a lot of injuries up there. Conditions just happened to be wrong at the time that they were there," Spezze said.

"Because of the amount of moisture that’s gone into the soil and now we’re starting to have nights where it’s below freezing, it’s causing frost on the ground and as that expands due to freezing and thawing, the thought is it causes the expansion and contraction and loosened the debris. And then whatever triggered it to go off, it slid all at once.

"It’s our belief due to the slide and everything we’ve heard from the engineers and geologists, it’s just not safe," Spezze said. "It’s way too much rock that looks like it could slide at any time , there's cracks in all the rock faces."

-- Memorial service to be held Saturday --

There was a candlelight vigil held for the family Tuesday night at the high school football field.

A memorial service for Dwayne, Dawna and Kiowa will be held on Saturday at 11 a.m. at Buena Vista High School.

Counseling was available at the school through the rest of the week.

A fund for the family to handle expenses and services have been set up at Cornerstone Church in Buena Vista. Learn more at http://cornerstonechurchbv.com/johnson.html

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