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Rescuer: 'Real hero' dad gave life for daughter in Colorado rockslide

Oct. 1, 2013 at 3:10 PM ET

Video: The lone survivor of the Colorado rockslide that buried five people under tons of rock was a teenage girl whose father may have sacrificed his own life to protect her, according to the local sheriff’s office. NBC’s Gabe Gutierrez reports.

As a cascade of boulders slid off the side of a cliff in Colorado on Monday, plummeting directly at a group of hikers, a father threw himself into harm’s way to shield his daughter — and saved her life, authorities say.

Five hikers who have been identified as members of the same family died after being buried under tons of rock, the Chaffee County Sheriff’s Office announced Tuesday. Authorities say Gracie Johnson, 13, was able to survive because her father, Dwayne Johnson, risked his life to save her. A spokesman for Chaffee County identified the dead as Gracie's parents, Dwayne and Dawna Johnson, 46 and 45, their daughter Kiowa-Rain, 18, and two visiting nephews. Dawna Johnson was a track coach at nearby Buena Vista High School, according to authorities. 

Gracie, a student at McGinnis Middle School, was airlifted to safety to Children’s Hospital Colorado in Aurora with a broken leg. “I’m glad she survived,’’ Chaffee County sheriff deputy Nick Tolsma told TODAY Tuesday. “Her dad is a real hero, saved her life.”

Around 11 a.m. on Monday, the group was on a popular hiking trail near Agnes Vaille Falls in the Pike and San Isabel National Forests below Mount Princeton when a set of boulders, some bigger than cars, came loose in a slide that was several football fields wide. The slide was witnessed by another hiker, who immediately called 911. 

“There was a cliff bank above the falls, and it looks like it slid off,’’ Chafee County undersheriff John Spezze told TODAY. “There are rocks in there that the engineers estimated weighed over 100 tons.”

First responders were able to find Gracie alive and get her to safety. A recovery mission could resume later today once engineers determine the ground is safe.

“I scoured over the rocks and looked underneath,’’ Tolsma said. “(I was) looking for a survivor, and I heard a small girl cry out, and saw a hand. I went over and started tossing off the boulders.”

Recent rain and freezing temperatures may have made the terrain unstable and caused the slide, according to Chaffee County sheriff Pete Palmer.

“We are at a bit of a loss right now just exactly how we’re going to move those boulders,’’ Palmer told TODAY.

Spezze told The Denver Post that the sheriff’s office would ask the U.S. Forest Service to permanently close the Agnes Vaille Falls trail. 

For information about donations visit www.johnsonfamilyfund.comor call the Cornerstone Church at 719-395-8178. 

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