Plain luck, reinforced by fast thinking, saved lives in the Quail Creek dike collapse.
If Ronald W. Thompson, manager of the St. George Water Conservancy District, and Wayne Wilson, chairman of the district's board, had not decided to drive out to look at the lake after a district meeting, there "would have been a catastrophic event," Thompson said."We would have had a loss of a lot of life."
The dam had seepage problems since it was built in 1985. It was routinely repaired and inspected. The last time it was checked was Friday night.
"There was no seepage in this area at all," Thompson said.
The next time it would have been inspected was Tuesday, but the dike collapsed Saturday night.
Thompson and Wilson attended an irrigation company meeting Saturday morning, and as they usually do after such meetings, took a drive to talk over some of the topics discussed.
They drove to the Quail Creek Dike, arriving about 10 a.m. But rather than quietly looking out over the reservoir while they talked, Thompson noticed seepage of colored water at the toe of the dike.
"I said, `What's that?' " Thompson said. "This seepage was coming out right at the toe of the dike and it had a brown color, but it had not yet discolored other water in the rain. So it had just started. I would guess the seepage started somewhere between 9 and 10 o'clock Saturday morning."
The dike seeped clear water off and on since it was built. But colored water meant that the water worming through the earthen dike was going fast enough to rip out fill as it went.
Thompson immediately contacted an engineer at Rollins, Brown and Gunnell, a Provo company that was one of the firms to design the reservoir project.
The expert there asked Thompson to follow the same procedure as with other leaks.
"It was a small seep, you know. It wasn't a big gusher or anything. I got a contractor over there with some equipment, got some gravel, built a gravel filter for it."
This amounted to dumping gravel on the seepage area to slow the water. It was an area that had never seeped before.
By 4:30 p.m., the operator called Thompson and said the seepage had increased. Thompson made another call to the engineering company.
"We made a decision to leave an operator on it continuously so we knew what was happening."
They decided to keep close watch on the dike throughout the New Year's weekend. "I'm sure it did save lives. I think what saved lives was getting the county people involved early - we realized there was something different," he said.
Thompson returned to St. George, and at 8 p.m., got another call from the operator. The flow had increased substantially from its previous level of one cubic foot per second. "He was very concerned about it."
By then a power generating plant was set up on the dike, providing light so heavy-equipment operators could work on the dam at night.
At the third telephone call to the Provo firm, the engineer said he would drive down immediately. At the same time, Thompson decided to notify county emergency personnel.
He called the sheriff's office, but the sheriff was out of town. Then he telephoned Tony Hafen, director of Washington County Emergency Services.
He and Hafen worried that the water would flood the highway below and made telephone calls about that. They still didn't think the dike itself would fail.
"Then by about shortly after 9 - between 9 and 10 - we made a decision that we were going to put everybody on full alert. It was increasing and the equipment was making no significant impact on it."
Evacuation orders went out to residences downstream.
By 10:30 p.m., a failure of the dike was obviously imminent. Thompson called the heavy equipment away from the danger area, and Hafen began closing the highway.
Before midnight, he said, "we had a total breech of the dike."
Thompson, construction workers, conservancy district board members, and a photographer or two had a perfect view, with the dike lit by the generation station set up on it.
"It was like the water was running through a pipe. Then all of a sudden you had about half the dike collapsed on it. It was just like a big tunnel caving in with water running through it, pushing its way on out, with lots of pressure."
There wasn't a wall of water, where it left the reservoir. Instead, it was just like somebody was lifting a giant flood gate, "just lifting and lifting and lifting.
"As an embankment would drop in on it, the water would carry it out with tremendous force."
In 20 minutes, the rest of the dike fell in.
Thompson and the other felt terrible, and frustrated at seeing all their work roaring out of the reservoir. "The only close call we had was some dumb photographer . . . went out on the dike where the light was, photographing, and a ledge started to fall out from under him," Thompson said.
Fortunately, the photographer got back to firm ground in time.
At about 1 p.m., when the water had been pouring out of the breech for an hour, it swept away the light plant too.
"It was just pitch black. You could just hear the water as it roared down the canyon."