It was forty years ago today, July 31, 1976, that Northern Colorado’s most devastating flood took place. In this guest post, Dean R. Schachterle looks past the flood to the important recovery work that followed.
Big Thompson Flood – July 31, 1976:
A Glimpse of Aftermath Victim Identifications
Dr. Michael Charney, Forensic Anthropologist
(Compiled by Dean R. Schachterle – July 2016)
The Big Thompson Flood, during the night of July 31, 1976, was enormously devastating with a final count of 144 casualties. The earliest newspaper accounts were sparse with details as new information slowly unfolded. In the following days, months and years, many stories have been written about the flood covering nearly every aspect. This posting features the dark side task of processing the flood victims with a special focus and follow-up regarding forensic anthropologist Dr. Michael Charney.
Of course the first priority of Larimer County officials after the 1976 Big Thompson Flood was to rescue all of the remaining survivors in the Big Thompson Canyon. Next, officials were determined to identify and process the victims of the flood with utmost respect and as rapidly as possible. Initially, flood victims were taken to the Kibbey Funeral Home in Loveland, Colorado. Larimer County Coroner Dr. Robert L. Schmidt was assigned the task of forming and leading a team of medical professionals to identify and process victims of the flood. About noon on Sunday, August 1, 1976, Dr. Schmidt made contact with Dr. Michael Charney to request his assistance. More than 25 bodies had been recovered at that time. Dr. Charney was a forensic anthropologist, assistant professor at Colorado State University, and had served as a deputy coroner to Dr. Schmidt since early 1975. Schmidt also contacted Dr. Patrick Allen, a young Loveland pathologist to request his assistance. Drs. Schmidt, Allen and Charney, along with many volunteer medical assistants, were successful in identifying all of the flood victims that were recovered.
The disposition of the main leaders in identifying the victims of the 1976 Big Thompson Flood:
- Dr. Robert L. Schmidt served as the Larimer County Coroner from 1952 to 1978;
- Dr. Patrick Allen served as the Larimer County Coroner from 1978 through 2014;
- Dr. Michael Charney served as an assistant professor in the Colorado State University anthropology and sociology department from 1971 to 1977, served as a deputy coroner with Larimer County, and formed the Forensic Science Lab (Human Identification Lab) at CSU in 1979.
The obituary for Dr. Michael Charney was published in the Coloradoan on May 10, 1998, with highlights listed below:
Dr. Michael Charney, 86, of Fort Collins died Saturday, May 2, 1998, at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Denver, from complications due to asthma. A memorial service will be held in June.
Michael Charney was born August 6, 1911, in Brooklyn. He earned a bachelor’s degree in anthropology from the University of Texas – Austin in 1934. He was a World War II U.S. Army veteran who served with the last horse cavalry unit in Texas. He was also a U.S. Army Reserves veteran. He earned a doctorate in anthropology from the University of Colorado in 1969.
Dr. Charney ran a medical laboratory in New Jersey before completing his doctorate. He later taught anthropology at Idaho State University and then at Colorado State University from 1971 until retiring in 1977. He continued to teach in the anthropology and zoology departments as professor emeritus, including teaching human identification techniques.
He was an expert at identifying remains. He had worked for the Texas Rangers and headed the team that identified the 139 victims of the Big Thompson Flood in 1976. He began identifying remains from Southeast Asia in 1985 and found that the U.S. Army Quartermaster Corps Laboratory in Hawaii often made identification errors.
Dr. Charney was survived by his wife, two sons, three daughters, one grandson, and one sister.
The Old Potting Shed
Dr. Charney’s old work place also provides and interesting story.
In the spring of 1874, members of Grange No. 7 held a picnic and planting event at the corner of South College Avenue and West Laurel Street. The Grange group planted twenty acres of wheat and built a 16 feet by 24 feet red brick building (called the “Claim Shanty”) as evidence to obtain a land grant college in Fort Collins. The state historical society has reported that the “Claim Shanty” was deconstructed in 1890 and the bricks were used to construct the “Old Potting Shed” in 1891. It’s somewhat interesting that the “Old Potting Shed” measures 19 feet 11 inches by 24 feet 9 inches. The published CSU Directory of Faculty/Staff/Students for 1991-92 listed Dr. Michael Charney’s Forensic Science Lab location at the Old Claims Shanty (see digital image below).
I highly recommend reading the oral interview transcript of Dr. Michael Charney, available through the Colorado State University library website.
Furthermore, Dr. David McComb’s research regarding the Big Thompson Flood is vast and is also available through the CSU library website. Dr. McComb conducted an interview with Dr. Michael Charney on September 5, 1976 regarding Charney’s primary role and participation in the identification of Big Thomson flood victims. Dr. David McComb is a former CSU history professor and is currently an emeritus faculty member.
Footnote: Dean Schachterle, manager of CSU central receiving, met Dr. Charney in 1980 and often provided assistance with packing materials to ship bones Dr. Charney had analyzed. Dr. Charney was always interested in sharing stories about anthropology and human identification with anyone who was interested. Dean always enjoyed seeing Dr. Charney drive up to the loading dock at central receiving in his early 1960s Porsche convertible with the top always down. The scene was reminiscent of Peter Falk and his role in the popular “Columbo” TV series, except Dr. Charney was real.
About the author:
Dean Schachterle is almost a native of Fort Collins. He was born on his dad’s dairy farm, next to the Poudre River, one mile south of Windsor (in the farm house at west end of Eastman Park). Dean’s family moved to Fort Collins in the summer of 1952. He attended Washington School from kindergarten through fifth grade and Dunn School in sixth grade, Lincoln Junior High School, Fort Collins High School, and was a member of the first class (1965) to graduate from Poudre High School.
Dean received his B.A. in history at Colorado State University in 1969 and received an ROTC commission as a 2nd Lieutenant in the U.S. Army. Dean was a counterintelligence officer, with one year in Vietnam, and was on active duty for slightly over two years. Dean returned to Fort Collins in 1972 and worked for Colorado State University for 26 years. He served as the manager of central receiving for his last 18 years at CSU. He is now retired and enjoys historical research, CSU athletics, and family genealogy.