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Father shielded daughter from deadly rock slide

BUENA VISTA, Colo. A sheriff's deputy says the teenage girl who survived a Colorado rock slide said her father protected her from the falling rocks.

Deputy Nick Tolsma said he saw her hand sticking out from the rocks and helped pull her out. He said she told him that her father covered her as the boulders fell, saving her life.

Gracie Johnson, 13, survived a rockslide that killed five family members
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Authorities say all five people who were killed and the teenage girl who survived were members of the same family.

The girl, 13-year-old Gracie Johnson, was airlifted to a Denver hospital with a broken leg after being dug out by rescuers.

"She told me at the last second when the boulders were coming down on top of them that he covered her up and protected her which I believe it saved her life," Tolsma said.

Killed in the rock slide were Dwayne Johnson, 46, his wife, Dawna Johnson, 45, their daughter, 18-year-old Kiowa-Rain Johnson, and nephews Baigen Walker, 10, and Paris Walkup, 22, both visiting from Missouri.

The Johnson family
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Chaffee County Undersheriff John Spezze said the family was from Buena Vista, Colo.

Search teams today reached the site and recovered all five bodies despite unstable ground and the threat of more falling rocks.

"This was a risky, risky operation," Chaffee County Sheriff Pete Palmer said.

The family was a big part of the their community, friends said.

"We may never get over this," said Jennifer Eggleston, a family friend. "You won't find one person in this town that they didn't touch."

Both of the Johnsons coached at Buena Vista High School, where their daughters were students. Today, classmates mourned near a rock on campus that has become a memorial.

"We all loved them," principal Brian Yates said.

The slide sent 100-ton boulders onto a viewing area overlooking Agnes Vaille falls in Chalk Creek Canyon below Mount Princeton, a 14,197-foot peak in south-central Colorado.

Witnesses said some of the boulders were the size of cars.

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A female hiker who heard the slide ran down the trail and called for help, Spezze said.

The area had a rainy summer and a recent snowfall, Spezze said. It was too soon to know if the weather prompted the slide, which left a football-field-sized gash in the mountainside, he said.

"It was totally unexpected. It caught everybody by surprise," Spezze said.

The trail is one of the first hikes recommended to people new to the area and is also popular with tourists, said Margaret Dean, a regular hiker who has walked the trail with her 7-year-old grandson.

The memorial to the Johnsons
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Dean, a copy assistant at The Mountain Mail newspaper in Salida, said the trail is easily accessible and provides a view of the falls and the Chalk Creek Valley in Collegiate Peaks, which contains mountains over 14,000-feet tall.

Agnes Vaille, the waterfall's namesake, was a Denver mountaineer who died in 1925 while attempting a difficult winter climb of Longs Peak, which rises to 14,259 feet.

The U.S. Forest Service maintains the trail. Spezze said officials have asked the Forest Service for a permanent closure.

The Forest Service says the trail got medium to heavy usage. The trailhead lies across from Chalk Lake campground and is near the St. Elmo ghost town, a popular stop for tourists in Colorado's central mountains.