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Man tells harrowing story of how he and his teenage daughters survived being buried by an avalanche

By Kevin Byrne, AccuWeather staff writer
April 29, 2019, 10:28:33 AM EDT

It was shortly after 6 a.m. on the morning of March 12 when Justin Casey awoke to a text message from a friend.

Casey had returned to his rural Lake City, Colorado, home late the previous night after being away for several days. Seeing what time it was, he realized he had some additional time to rest before heading into work. But before he could fall back to sleep, he heard a loud bang and felt his entire house shake.

After a brief pause, his bedroom exploded, and he was enveloped by a barrage of snow mixed with debris. His house had been demolished by an avalanche.

Suddenly Casey, who had responded to several other avalanches and mudslides over the course of his career as Hinsdale County Sheriff, had to scramble for survival as well as rescue his two daughters, Sara and Kristy.

sheriff casey

Justin Casey (Photo/Hinsdale County Sheriff)

It was dark and heavy snow was falling. Casey said he remembers swimming through the snow before it became more of a crawl as the snow slowed down. Eventually he found himself face down in the snow. As he managed to get to his feet and steady himself, he looked around to survey the scene, only to find his house and barn had been destroyed.

“I looked around to see if I could find any sign of movement,” Casey told AccuWeather in an interview. “I had the realization that my girls were probably buried in the avalanche and then I noticed that both my personal truck and my patrol vehicle were still in the place where I parked them the night before. So I went there to try to get into a vehicle and put out a radio call for help.”

While first responders raced to the scene, Casey, 39, found his own emergency gear in his patrol vehicle and started searching the area, calling for his daughters. While he had been at the scene of other avalanches, Casey said he never had to dig someone out before.

(Photo/Justin Casey)

The Casey family. From left, Kristy, Sara and Justin.

(Photo/Justin Casey)

The Casey family house in Lake City, Colorado.

(Photo/Justin Casey)

The avalanche destroyed the family's home.

(Photo/Justin Casey)

All the vehicles on the property were also destroyed.

(Photo/Justin Casey)

As he walked over the ground where his house had been, his oldest daughter, Sara, 17, experienced an unusual sensation: She felt her father walking over top of her and began yelling for help. She had been trapped under a piece of flooring and entrenched in 3 feet of snow.

By the time Sara had been dug out, the emergency responders arrived and began rescuing Kristy, 15, who was also stuck under debris and several feet of snow.

More than a month after they lost their home, Casey and his daughters are telling their story and say they're doing well physically. Justin says it’s miraculous that none of them suffered any broken bones.

Both his daughters were treated for cuts and lacerations suffered to their heads and faces and exposure to the elements after being stuck in the snow. Casey said he sprained an ankle while also suffering a mild case of frostbite.

However, life remains uncertain for them with the loss of their home. As they try to get their lives back on track, the small but tight-knit community of Lake City has rallied to their aid.

A GoFundMe was created to help raise money for the family. Others have opened their homes to the Caseys, offering a place to stay, while also donating clothes, meals and even vehicles. All four vehicles at their property were also totaled in the avalanche.

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“There’s a gentleman who helped out by replacing my daughter’s car because her car was also totaled in the avalanche,” Casey said. "[The community] has been incredibly supportive, incredibly helpful."

Occasionally, Casey and others in the community will return to his property to see if any items can be salvaged from the rubble, but many items from their home remain encased in ice.

"The snow is starting to melt out, but because of how hard packed that snow is from the avalanche and because of insulation and debris, the sun can’t really melt that out," he said. "Occasionally we find some things on the top of the surface when we go out there, but most of the things we find are still frozen in hard-packed snow and ice."

His house, which stood at an elevation of 9,500 feet in the high country of the San Juan Mountains, was not considered to be in an avalanche zone, but it was close to a historic avalanche chute. The house also sat on a south-facing slope, which gets a lot of sun exposure. However, the volume of heavy snow the area was bombarded with this year was enough to trigger an avalanche, Casey said.

Casey has been able to return to his role as sheriff and expressed gratitude for his colleagues.

“Thankfully I have an incredible staff who has been helping out and covering in my absence,” he said.

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