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September 28, 2020

Hinsdale County Sheriff Justin Casey — who has resumed work on a limited basis — agreed to a short interview with SILVER WORLD this week recounting his recent horrific snowslide experience.


Hinsdale County Sheriff Justin Casey — who has resumed work on a limited basis — agreed to a short interview with SILVER WORLD this week recounting his recent horrific snowslide experience.
Sheriff Casey and his daughters, 17-year-old Sarah, and Kristy, 15, returned to a new temporary home in Lake City on March 14 and as of this week he is putting in part-time hours in the county sheriff’s office assisted by Sheriff’s Assistant Bobbi Vickers McDonald, Undersheriff Kambish, and Deputy Kaminski.
Sitting in his sunlight-filled office on Monday morning this week, Sheriff Casey is frank in his description of the snowslide and its aftermath, occasionally pausing in his succinct recollections.
He had been out of town on Monday, March 11 — the day prior to the snowslide — attending funeral services for the mother of local resident Lyn Lampert. Returning home late Monday night, Casey said he was awake and in bed about 6 a.m. Tuesday dressed in fleece sleep trousers, without shirt or shoes.
Casey’s bedroom was located on the second floor of the house, while his daughters, also in bed and asleep, occupied separate bedrooms on the third level of the house.
Moments before the snowslide struck, he said he heard a loud bang making the house momentarily shudder, which in retrospect he attributes to wind and the abrupt change in atmosphere pressure immediately preceding the snowslide.
Again pausing, Casey estimates that it was less than ten seconds later that the house “exploded”, and he found himself in complete darkness.
He quickly realized that he and his family had been struck by an avalanche and — enveloped in swirling snow and debris — began “swimming as hard as I could.”
“I felt I was swimming with the current and when that began to slow down, it felt as though I was slowly crawling up hill.”
Casey never lost consciousness, ending up face down on the surface of the snow in the middle of the debris field. He says that even after revisiting the site, he cannot pinpoint the exact location where he came to rest, although he believes it was in the general area between where the house and barn once stood.
He was still in total darkness and his initial thought was that he had lost his sight as a result of a blow to the head. Momentary relief came when his sight returned after rubbing away snow which was encrusted over his eyes and head. He looked around but found orientation difficult without reference to the house and barn, both of which had disappeared.
Asked for a description of the sounds which surrounded him, Casey said that the slide itself was almost deafening, comparable to a freight train with roaring and crushing sounds. Afterward it was quiet, the first sounds which he recalls being the whinnying of his horses which ran away after surviving the slide.
Rising onto his knees and looking about the total destruction, the first sight he recalls was the fact a light was on in his daughter’s overturned car, a 1999 Land Rover.
The car had been tossed onto its side by the force of the slide, he explains, the interior light going on when one of the vehicle’s doors was thrown open. After wrapping himself in his bedspread which lay crumpled on the ground beside him, Casey says he made a quick assessment of the situation.
“I knew I needed to call out for assistance.”
Other than his miraculous survival, this was also the start of a number of smaller happenstance coincidences. In addition to his daughter’s car, two other vehicles were parked near the house at the time of the snowslide.
He first made his way to his patrol vehicle, a 2018 Toyota 4-runner equipped with radio communications. The vehicle was locked and its keys were in what had been the house.
His next thought was his personal vehicle, a 2015 Toyota Pickup also equipped with radio, which he also typically locks. Fortuitously, the Toyota had been left unlocked and the radio was working. He contacted Gunnison dispatch, alerting the outside world to the fact “my house has been destroyed and my girls are buried.”
“I need help.”
While inside his pickup, Casey also noticed that, uncharacteristically, he had left his search & rescue bag inside, also an unusual occurrence since he always takes the bag with emergency provisions inside the house. This bag allowed him to change into warmer clothing and winter boots, after which he returned to the debris field to look for his daughters.
Casey’s eyes briefly mist as he recalls that the first family member he found was his pet, Remmy, who he simply refers to as a “very good dog.” Continuing his search further out from the house location, he heard a muffled yell from beneath the snow which he identified as his eldest daughter, Sarah.
After working to pinpoint the location from which the yell originated, he began to dig, aided by Steve Dozier who the first rescuer to arrive on the scene. Using just his hands and shattered wood, Casey proceeded to dig a 3’-deep hole in the snow and debris to locate Sarah, the extrication allowing her to slowly wiggle out from her entrapment. Asked if she was injured, Sarah replied that she was “really, really cold,”
She was placed in Steve Dozier’s vehicle to warm herself, allowing Casey and Dozier, along with Undersheriff Kambish, who had also arrived on scene, to continue the search for 15-year-old Kristy Casey.
While Sarah had been found an estimated 45 to 60 minutes after the slide, it was perhaps another hour before Kristy was located. The snowslide had hurled both girls out of their bedrooms an estimated 150 yards from the location of the house. Both girls were found among snow and debris on Hinsdale County Road 30 down from both the house and barn. Kristy was among building debris an estimated 2’ to 3’-deep and about 20’ from the location where her sister was found.
Kristy had been unconscious but revived sufficiently to shout out and allow researchers to locate her.
A crowd of rescuers had arrived on the scene by this time, including Steve Dozier, who cut his hand on tin buried in the snow while digging, and Dr. Gina Carr from Lake City Area Medical Center. After extrication of both girls, it was arranged to take the entire family — Justin, Sarah and Kristy — to the local medical center for evaluation, after which they were transferred to Gunnison Valley Hospital where they were treated for hypothermia, lacerations and significant bruising, although — again miraculously — no one sustained broken bones.
Justin was treated at the hospital and released the same day as the snowslide, March 12; Sarah was released from the Gunnison hospital the following day, March 13, and Kristy was released March 14.
They returned to temporary housing north of Lake City where, according to the girls’ grandmother, Cindy Dozier, “the family is safe and warm.”
Asked about their current condition, Justin Casey responds that they are “physically doing well and recovering, although we continue to try to figure out which way is up and what life will look like next.”
“We feel very blessed and fortunate that God spared us,” he says. According to the county sheriff, he and his daughters are thankful and encouraged by the tremendous outpouring by the many, many people “who have helped us out.”
The Caseys had occupied their upper Lake Fork residence, less than a half mile below Sherman and approximately 12-1/2 miles up valley from Lake City — since December, 2016. The house and barn were built by Justin and Jennifer Sparks in 2006.
Asked if he was aware of any snowslide activity prior to the March 12 slide, Casey states that no slides had occurred during their years on the property. He said he was aware of other slides in the area, notably the Sunshine Falls Slide closer to Sherman which runs in a separate chute off Sunshine Mountain from the slide which impacted his house.
Donations to the Casey family can be made at Community Banks of Colorado or at https://www.gofundme.com/the-casey-family-lake-city-colorado.

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