Bodies of 5 family members killed in rockslide near Agnes Vaille Falls recovered; Girl improving

Gracie Johnson, 13, lost parents, sister, cousins

BUENA VISTA, Colo. - The bodies of the five family members who were killed Monday morning in a massive rockslide at Agnes Vaille Falls have been recovered, the Chaffee County Sheriff's Office said Tuesday.

Sheriff Pete Palmer said 43 volunteers made their way to the trail around 8:30 a.m., but waited until 11:30 a.m., after the frost melted, the ground thawed and stabilized, to start removing the boulders off the victims. All five bodies were recovered by 12:30 p.m.

"Forty-three people risking life and limb to recover these bodies ... This was a risky, risky operation," Palmer said. "There was no doubt this was dangerous. There were loose rocks all the way around."

The victims were identified Tuesday as Dwayne Johnson, 46; his wife Dawna Johnson, 45; and their daughter, Kiowa-Rain Johnson, 18. 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, 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 rockslide several football fields long.

Gracie was pulled out of the rubble on Monday and flown to Children's Hospital in Aurora.

"When I was looking through the boulder field for anybody, that’s when I saw her arm sticking up through the boulders," Deputy Nick Tolsma told 7NEWS. "She was screaming, so I lifted the rocks off her, got to at least where I could start talking to her before more help came ... We got her all the way out,  got her down the trail and on the Flight for Life."

"She said that her dad jumped on top of her to protect her at the last moment when the rocks were coming down, and I really think that he saved her life," Tolmsa said.

"[Gracie] remains in Children's Hospital due to the injuries sustained in the rock slide. Her condition is listed as stable following surgery for a severe broken leg," officials stated Tuesday.

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

"Obviously, it's a 13-year-old dealing with the loss of her family. I don't think I have to say anymore than that," said family spokesman Mike Carr, when asked about Gracie's condition.

Carr said he's positive Dwayne's only regret would be that he didn't jump in front of his whole family.

He said Dwayne was "the All American guy, the guy that you’d want to live next door to, would go above and beyond to do anything for anybody and everybody."

"What the deputy described with him and Gracie is not surprising whatsoever. The only thing he probably would’ve hoped is that he could’ve done that with his whole family. That’s just the type of guy he was, always giving, always reaching out, very hardworking, industrious," Carr said.

Children's Hospital issued this statement on Tuesday: "The family of Gracie Johnson would like to thank the community for their concern during this difficult time. Per the family’s wishes and out of respect of patient privacy, the hospital is not authorized to release any information, including condition updates."

"Gracie will be lucky if she gets to walk around the halls for the next year, they’ll probably be people wanting to carry her for now til eternity, just to help and support her," Carr said.

-- 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.

-- Trail may be closed permanently --

Because of the treacherous conditions, first-responders couldn't recover the five bodies Monday evening and had to call off the effort to retrieve the victims when it became dark.

Family members were on the trail Tuesday morning, helping the sheriff's office identify the bodies as they were carried down the trail and before they were taken to the morgue.

"(The recovery effort) took us far less time than we thought. We really lucked out, we were able to move the rocks by hand," said Chaffee County Undersheriff John Spezze.   Although K-9s were available, rescuers were able to find all the victims fairly quickly, he said.

"If you don’t live in a small community, you don’t understand the emotional toll that it takes. Those are all volunteers, all of them knew Dwayne and Dawna personally and the family," Carr said. "So to go up there and put out that effort, any of us would do that, but to calculate the toll that it takes on you,  to know what you’re dealing with there, and have to come home and deal with that at night after what you did for your community, I can’t say enough about the search and rescue and sheriff’s department."

Spezze said recovering the bodies as soon as feasible was something they had to do for the family.

"I told them, you know, we have to be safe but it’s our job and we’re a small county and this is what we do. We have a commitment to them and responsibility to them and we’re going to make this happen as fast as we can for them. They need closure and they need this done and we’re going to provide that to them as fast as we can," Spezze said.

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.

The trail is very popular with families because it's fairly short - only a half-mile.

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

The trail has been closed indefinitely, but the sheriff's office is asking the Forest Service to close the trail permanently because it's just too dangerous.

"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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