Confronting Chaos

May 28, 2001, my 35th birthday, started out like any other day. The sun was shining, the birds were chirping, and the only blot on the day was my attendance at a Celebration of Life service for my teaching mentor who had passed away due to brain cancer. But I figured that if the memorial was the only sad part of the day, so be it, because the rest of the day, and the week, was going to be awesome.

I had been looking forward to this day for several months because not only was it my birthday, it was also the start of the summer of our tenth wedding anniversary, and my husband and I were going to celebrate both milestones by going to Cripple Creek and then on to Glenwood Springs where we had honeymooned.

As soon as the service was over, we hopped in the car and drove up Ute Pass toward Divide. We turned onto Highway 67, and I looked east to see the same green clouds I’d seen the day before—an odd mix of emerald and moss that I’ve never seen since.

“That’s weird,” I said to my husband.

He glanced over and said, “Looks like a pretty powerful storm brewing out east.”

We didn’t think any more of it as we drove the rest of the way to Cripple Creek and spent the evening playing the slots. At around 11:00 p.m. I hit straight 7’s on the nickel slots, my only jackpot, ever. I netted about $125. Excited from my win, I asked my husband whom we could call to tell about it.

“Dave will still be up; let’s call him.” So I dialed Dave and, as we walked back to our room, told him about my slot machine adventure.

“That’s great, but you should sit down and turn on CNN—your school is gone,” Dave replied.

I handed my husband the phone and reached for the remote, clicking on the news. Although the scene on the screen was dark, I could see via a helicopter flyover that Dave was right—my school was gone. Those green clouds had formed a tornado-like microburst that hit in two places: my school and a trailer park about three miles away. Only the front of the building, where my classroom was, was gone; the rest of the building appeared intact.

I stared at the TV with an open mouth as my husband concluded the conversation with Dave and hung up.

“What do you want to do?” he said.

“Well going home isn’t going to help. Let’s wait until morning and call my principal to see what he thinks.”

The next morning, the principal convinced me that there was nothing we could do because the insurance company had made the place off-limits due to safety concerns. The tornado had left a hailstorm in its wake, which soaked everything that wasn’t blown away. There was so much hail that the roads had to be plowed so the emergency teams could get to the building.

We finished our trip, although not without some more furtive calls home to ask after my students who lived in the trailer park and near the school. No one had been hurt. One student, whose family owned the general store nearby, was working during the storm. He said he stepped outside and watched the whole thing, only going back inside when it looked like the tornado was heading toward the store.

Upon our return, we got out of the van and straight into the car, heading the 22 miles to the school without even unpacking first. When we got there, I discovered that although my file cabinet was still in place, the rest of the room was gone. The file drawers were open and all of my lesson plans and supplies were either blown to Kansas or were wet and unsalvageable. I was flabbergasted; the current weather was 75 degrees and calm.

The view from a helicopter, the day after the storm. (Credit: The Gazette)

I spent the next three days working with the insurance company helping to inventory the school’s losses for the claim. Several irreplaceable things, like the drama costumes and props, were written off. I was given a check to cover my losses, but how does one place a value on twelve years of plans and materials?

The cafeteria roof rolled up like a burrito. This picture was taken looking north from the vicinity of my classroom. (Credit: The Gazette)

The community came together to help us rebuild. Over the summer, Friends of the Penrose Library helped us replace our personal teacher libraries, several used bookstores allowed us to have our pick of replacement novels, AM radio station 1460 took up donations, and New Life Church donated ten used computers so our yearbook staff could re-create the layouts they had finalized just days before, but which were lost. The yearbook was re-named, “Confronting Chaos,” and featured many pictures of the damage as well as first-person accounts of the experience, which took up some of the space of the lost content.

Pages from the “Confronting Chaos” 2001 Yearbook. (Credit: DeLyn Martineau)

It’s not hard to guess where my $125 winnings went. The re-build of the school took until the following January, so we started fall classes in modular buildings. We had lost a good number of staff, including the principal, so it was a funky start to the school year, but I’ll never forget how resilient our students were. They adapted to their new situation as if this major upheaval were just a matter of course.

It’s been so long now since that fateful day that the details get cloudy in my mind, but I’ll never stop wondering…did my lost mentor teacher have anything to do with the tornado? After all, it hit right where her classroom used to be. No one was in the building or was seriously hurt, even though the gym had been open for summer practice and packed with teenagers just hours earlier. I’m not the only one who thinks my mentor may have had a hand in keeping people safe from that storm, but we’ll never know. All I do know is that I had more highs and lows on that birthday than any I’ve ever experienced.

Three months later, 9-11 happened.

On that same day, we had a bomb threat. But that’s a different story.

Photo By: DeLyn Martineau