School district convoy brings stranded students home

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If someone wondered about a caravan of 15 white Chevy Suburbans, two small buses and a service truck, led by a Douglas County sheriff's car, leaving the Parker area the afternoon of Sept. 13 — it was just a school principal and school district personnel trying to get their kids back.

And they did it.

Eighty-seven Pine Grove Elementary School sixth-graders and six adults were supposed to come home Sept. 12 from a 2½-day outdoor education experience at the Estes Park YMCA. But midweek the weather changed, the rains started — and eventually the power went out, and the entrance to the camp was flooding, the camp's bridge was being compromised, and the couple-mile mountain road to the camp was in danger of being washed out.

Molly Gnaegy, the school's principal, and district personnel determined the kids needed to stay up there an extra night, and then on Sept. 13, after making a plan, the decision was made to seize the moment. There was a small window of clear weather and the National Park Service was going to let them travel the only way in — Trail Ridge Road, which was closed to the public so it could used as an emergency access just for situations like theirs.

“It was a little risky,” Gnaegy said.

But if they didn't get the kids out that day, there was the possibility with colder weather in the mountains on Sept. 15 that there could be snow conditions on Trail Ridge Road — and then what, they thought.

About 3 p.m. Sept. 13, the convoy took off to get the kids and their teachers and chaperones — who didn't know that help was on the way to get them home.

A message had been sent, but the camp didn't get the message.

Since mid-day Sept. 12, power was out in Estes Park. Gnaegy had made contact with another YMCA camp in Winter Park, and the person there was able to renew communication indirectly by connecting with someone in Estes Park who had a walkie-talkie or satellite phone that he was able to use in his car and connect somehow with the Estes Park YMCA camp, Gnaegy said.

They would set up scheduled communications periodically this way to check on the kids. But after the decision was made to take a convoy up, and a message was sent about that, and somehow it didn't get though. Gnaegy said she thinks it was because the camp got very busy at that point, as the camp, she found out later, had received word the camp's road had maybe 30 minutes before potentially washing out. They were busy getting out the Douglas County students as well as students from a couple other schools.

Gnaegy was later told that students were shuttled about five at a time in YMCA pickups that were being driven behind a front-end loader, which pushed water and debris out of the way, clearing the way for the pickups. The students then were taken to a restaurant parking lot and put on buses that they took about four miles or so to the Rocky Mountain Church in Estes Park, where they would be safer.

Gnaegy said when the school district's convoy rolled up to the church about 8 p.m. there were a lot of tears.

“I've never been so excited to see a principal in all my life,” a student told her.

The students got into the white SUVs, got food bags that had been prepared on a moment's notice by the district's nutrition services, and then the drivers took off for home. The drivers included Paul Balon, the district's director of transportation, and district bus drivers, who coincidentally were quite familiar with Trail Ridge Road — which at its highest point is at 12,183 feet in elevation. They had trained on that road in the past as an exercise in dealing with challenging driving situations.

But on this trip, Trail Ridge Road didn't have a “drop of precipitation … It usually causes people grief, but it was the road that saved us,” Gnaegy said. “The moon was out and guided us all the way.”

The students, who had learned compass skills and using the stars for navigation at the camp, practiced those skills, on the way home — before falling asleep, Gnaegy said.

When they got to Pine Grove at 1 a.m. Sept. 14, parents were lining the sidewalks. They knew about when the convoy was expected because of periodic emails about the progress.

Gnaegy said she can't say enough about the YMCA staff who kept the kids calm and busy with fun activities throughout this saga. And for the school-district team that put this effort together.

The students got Sept. 16 off from school to recuperate and rest. Gnaegy said the adults would meet soon to discuss what could be done differently next time. But overall, things went well.

Michelle Yi, school district spokeswoman, said that “this is truly a shining example of the Douglas County community coming together to work toward a great cause.”