CORVALLIS – Clinging desperately to a fencepost with her 9-year-old cousin Conner in her arms, a raging torrent of muddy, ice-cold flash floodwater strewn with boulders and branches trying to drag her down, Christi Skelton knew she had only two terrifying choices when she saw the huge wooden building across the street collapse and come directly toward them.
She could either let go, and allow the flood to sweep her and the petrified young boy away, or she could let the collapsed building smash into them and try to hold on.
“It was the entire building coming down right at us,” she said. “And I did not want to get stuck underneath it because I knew we wouldn’t get up. I didn’t want it to knock us out because then the worst could happen. And so I just told him, ‘OK, you hold on to me, and I’ll hold on to you, because we’re going down.’ I didn’t know if he could hear me, because it was so loud, like a raging river. And then we did. We let go, and let the water take us down.”
Tumbling head over heels in the freezing deluge, grabbing for a sagebrush, the skin below Skelton’s knees was being ripped off by the debris. Conner’s shoes, pants and underwear were torn off by the sheer force of the water.
“By that time, I was almost completely numb because the water was so cold,” Skelton said. “And the water was trying to take him away.”
And as her young cousin’s hand slipped out of her numb fingers, all Skelton could do was pray.
The Corvallis woman was hosting a family reunion on July 17, and she and her family were exploring Bannack State Park during a rainstorm when a sudden and severe flash flood ripped through the historic ghost town, ripping out boardwalks and sending a surge of muddy water filled with hailstones through the streets.
While other tourists were evacuated safely by park officials, Skelton and her family were caught right in the middle of the deadly surge.
The day started out as a fun-filled jaunt down the Big Hole Valley. The weather was warm, with a few dark clouds building up in the sky.
“It was a perfect day,” Skelton recalled. “A lot of family was in town from California visiting. We go hunting and camping at Bannack several times a year, every year, so we wanted to take them to the ghost town.”
It started raining slightly while they were having their picnic, and then it started hailing.
“So we decided to pack everything up and go ahead and go to the ghost town, because you know how storms are around here, they don’t usually last very long, a half-hour or 45 minutes at the most,” Skelton said. “So I thought it would blow over.”
Unbeknownst to Skelton, at least three-quarters of an inch of rain fell in a half hour, and the normally dry gullies that drain into the town were beginning to swell with water.
She and her four kids, along with her sister, aunt and three other cousins, decided to brave the rain.
“Because, like I said, in Montana, when do you let a storm stop you from doing anything?” Skelton asked. “We had so much fun running through the ghost town. We were soaking wet from the rain. It was an awesome storm. We were getting ready to go to the schoolhouse and my aunt and my sister decided they were done being wet, so they went back to the car. Thank goodness I stayed with the kids.”
Skelton was left alone in the town with seven children.
“We went to the schoolhouse and we were getting ready to go outside, and the kids wanted to go to the church,” she said. “I said sure, then we’re done. So we go out on the road, and that’s when I saw the mud creeping in between the buildings. And it was full of hail. It was really slow at first. I knew what it could entail. I think the kids kind of thought it was cool at first, but I immediately said ‘run, run, run as fast as you can, get out of here!’ We turned around to run, and that’s when the flood was instant.”
The group barely had time to start sprinting before the waist-high wall of churning brown water caught up with them.
“It was so immediate, so fast,” Skelton said. “It was terrifying. One of my daughters and a cousin got the farthest up, and the water knocked them down but they were able to get back up. They didn’t get swept down. My son and another cousin were right behind them and they did get swept down. They were swept off the street and down to one of the buildings below. They were able to get up and get to where it wasn’t as fast so they could stand up and walk back up to the road.”
Skelton’s oldest daughter was stuck on a fence.
“The water was moving so fast,” she said. “It had total control over you. My youngest daughter and my cousin Conner and I got stuck on another part of the same fence. And I was hollering at her, because she was panicked, to stay there and don’t move because there was no way you could walk in it.”
Skelton’s other cousin, Brian Thomasy, 40, ran up from the cars to see what was going on, and started wading out in the torrent to help.
“He gets to my oldest daughter, and her fence breaks,” Skelton said. “He was wobbly, but he carried her to where the other kids are. And then he starts to come to myself and my daughter Aubree, who is 8, and Conner. And our fence breaks because of the weight of the water, the rocks and debris and everything else.”
Skelton watched as her daughter was swept down 10 or 15 feet.
“And of course she is terrified, screaming,” Skelton said. “I’m scared, but I secure Conner and tell him to hold on. I worked my way down to my daughter and Brian gets over to where we were, and we were able to lift her up over the fence. The fence was kind of on its side, and luckily she held on. If she had let go, it would have taken her all the way down to who knows where. Conner and Aubree were both scared, asking if we were going to die. And I said, ‘No, we’re going to pray right now.’ And that kind of calmed them.”
However, as Thomasy went to carry Skelton’s daughter to set her down on a boardwalk, the water ripped it away and knocked him off balance.
“They go down in the water and the flood washes them away,” Skelton said. “But he was smart. He used a tree to push off with his legs, and was able to get over to another building, otherwise he would have gotten washed down.”
Then it was just Skelton and her 9-year-old cousin Conner still trapped by the raging waters.
“I got back to him, and I thought I had a good hold,” she said. “He was in between my arms. He had a hold of the fence, I had a hold of him and the fence. And I told him, ‘We’re just going to stay here until somebody comes to get us or it dies down and we can get out.’ We just prayed the whole time. That’s when I look up and the Assay building starts to collapse.”
The Assay Office, built in the 1800s during the gold strike, was the only building that was completely destroyed by the flood.
“It was right across the street from us,” Skelton said. “It was headed right toward us. It wasn’t just a piece of board, it was the entire building coming down right at us. It could have come on top of us or knocked us out. Either way we were screwed. And so I told Conner, ‘I said OK, you hold on to me, and I hold on to you, because we’re going to go down.’ Because I don’t want to go underneath that building. I just told him to hold on to me.”
Skelton said she held on for a little bit, but the water knocked Conner out of her arms.
“It took us underneath the water and flipped us a couple times,” she said. “When I came up out of the water, he was in front of me. I was hollering at him. There was a big piece of sagebrush up in front of us that I thought maybe if we could get to that maybe we could hold on to it. And I was able to get over to the sagebrush, and he did too. By the time I got there, he was having a hard time holding onto the sagebrush. I’m holding onto him and the sagebrush, but the water, it stripped him of his clothes. It wasn’t super deep, it was just powerful. It just took everything instantly, it was so fast.”
Above them, where they had been hanging onto the fence before they let go, Brian and Skelton’s cousin Jacob and her son Scott were looking for the two.
“They didn’t know where we went, they thought they’d lost us,” Skelton said. “I can see them up there looking. So I start waving my arms. Brian comes down where it’s not so fast and slowly makes his way to us. We were both numb. I couldn’t feel my fingers or anything because it was just like ice water with the hail. So we had a hard time getting Conner up, he’s a big kid. We got connected and slowly walked uphill. And by the time we got to the road, it was a river and not a road. And there was seven members of my family waiting for us, and we crossed the road very carefully. We connected arms together, and got to one of the buildings they still use today and they gave us some blankets.”
Still shocked from their ordeal, the family went to the hospital in Dillon, where Skelton and three of the kids were treated. X-rays showed no broken bones, and none of them needed stitches. However, Conner had terrible road rash from being dragged, several of the kids lost their shoes and shirts, and Skelton’s knees were bloody and shredded, and her ankles were sprained.
The emotions of the day will linger much longer than the injuries, according to Skelton.
“We are just so thankful that we’re still alive,” she said. “If I had left the kids instead of staying with them, or if I hadn’t been in back with Aubrey and Conner, I don’t know. There’s so many scenarios. We just feel so blessed and fortunate. I just praise God that we’re alive. It was definitely the most terrifying thing that’s ever happened to me. I don’t want to go through anything like that again. I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. It was awful. But we’re all doing well now.”