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When Colorado teen Wesley Quinlan saw his girlfriend Wiyanna Nelson swept away from their car in a raging flood last week, he didn’t hesitate for an instant.
Friends and family say diving into the water to try and save her was the kind of selflessness that defined Wesley, 19, who lost his life along with Wiyanna.
They are two of the five confirmed deaths in the storms that have devastated Colorado and left 1,200 people unaccounted for. Flood survivors Emily Briggs and Nathan Jennings, along with the mothers of Wesley and Wiyanna, all spoke to TODAY's Matt Lauer Monday.
Wesley, Wiyanna , Emily and Nathan became trapped in Emily’s Subaru in the pummeling rain on Sept. 11 while coming home from a birthday party in Boulder. Three of them climbed out of the car to try to get to safety. Wiyanna was nearly swept away once before Wesley rescued her, and when the flood pulled her away again, he sacrificed his life to try to bring her to safety.
“He dove in the water to save her without even a second thought,’’ Emily told Matt Lauer on TODAY Monday. “I know that he would’ve done the same for me and Nathan because he was just that selfless of a person.
“I looked at Wesley and he looked at me, and he jumped after her,’’ Emily said. “They were my best friends, and I feel like I watched them die.”
Wesley and Wiyanna had been dating for seven months, according to friends and family. Those mourning their loss took solace in the fact that they were together when they died.
“It reassured me that she passed happy,’’ Wiyanna's mother Jennifer told Lauer. “She found the love she was looking for. She loved everybody, she was loved by everybody and just knowing that she had finally overcome so much. She was getting ahead in her life, and you could see her smile. I had people say it was nice to see the change in her.”
Wesley’s mother was not surprised that her son didn’t hesitate to risk his life to try to save his girlfriend.
“I don’t know where my strength is coming from, but I’m holding up for him and her,” Glenda Aretxuloeta told Lauer. “Wes was loved by so many people because he…loved people unconditionally. He was not judgmental, and he had a huge, huge heart. I tried to instill the value of compassion and love and no fear. Don’t let fear stop you from doing anything. Everything’s possible.”
Nathan Jennings was eventually rescued from the rising rapids by a volunteer fireman. Emily remained in the car for three hours until the same fireman brought her to safety.
“As soon as we got out of the car we really realized that we just got ourselves in more of a deeper situation, honestly,’’ Nathan said on TODAY. “I flew down the mountain that I used to drive every morning down to school, every day now for work, and that was just a lot to handle. I actually sort of caught myself on a real big branch that was snapped off from some tree. Sitting on it for 15 or 20 seconds, (the fireman) drove up, and I was just kind of blinded by his headlights for a little bit, and then I heard his voice just shouting for me to get over the rocks and get up there.”
“We just saw a lot of running water, and we started hearing a lot of rocks hitting the side of the car, (and) a couple sticks kicked up and they hit my windshield,’’ Emily said. “Just a lot of chaos going on outside, and then when he opened the door there was like at least 60-mile-an-hour winds (outside).”
There are still 1,200 people unaccounted for and nearly 19,000 homes destroyed over a span of 15 counties and 130 miles of land. More than 150 miles of roadway have been compromised or washed away.
Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper said on TODAY Monday that the primary focus will be on search and rescue.
“We’ll have 16 or 17 helicopters up in the air here in the next hour or two and we will comb that entire landscape to make sure we get everybody out,” he said.
Many of the residents they hope to rescue have been without phone coverage for several days.
“We’ve had no way to get a hold of them,” he said. “I am very hopeful that the vast majority of those people are safe and sound but we don’t have any illusions. We know there will almost certainly be more fatalities.”
"I've never seen anything as devastating as the water we've seen this week," Boulder police chief Mark Beckner, a 35-year resident of the town, told Lauer. "Boulder Creek through the middle of downtown Boulder was out of its banks 50 feet on either side, flooding homes, apartment buildings, destroying roads. It's been incredible.
"We are lucky, believe it or not, as much damage as we've had. When you look beyond the borders of Boulder, they've suffered much worse that we have in terms of roads that have been washed out, homes that have been destroyed, (and) people who are without homes who have been evacuated."
Hickenlooper said he expects water levels to stabilize over the next day or two before finally receding.
“It’s like a python that swallows a meal. It’s going to take a few days to work through the system, but it’ll start receding here, or at least not getting worse, in the next 12 hours and then start receding over the next couple of days," he said.
The devastation wrought by the storms has left even veteran first responders shaken.
“I know the voices on the radio and when I hear people I know on the radio trapped up there, it's personal,’’ Larimer County sheriff Justin Smith told Lauer. “It does — it takes a toll.”
As the storm recedes, family and friends are left to mourn Wesley and Wiyanna. Wesley was set to attend Colorado Film School.
“So much is going on, and I keep (telling) myself, ’I’m not supposed to be doing this,’’’ Wiyanna's mom Jennifer Nelson said.