Follow Up


Colorado Mesa University athlete seriously injured by recent rockfall in De Beque Canyon, on road to recovery

"You know, he's a fighter and he's going to do what he needs to do to get back," the teen's lacrosse coach told Denver7.
erich petersen rock fall 2.jpg
Posted at 5:43 PM, Aug 24, 2023
and last updated 2023-08-25 14:50:50-04

MESA COUNTY, Colo. — A "tenacious" but "soft-spoken" sophomore athlete at Colorado Mesa University is on a long road toward recovery after recent rockfall in De Beque Canyon nearly ended his life, his coach said.

On Friday evening, Erich Petersen, 19, was driving along Interstate 70 in his family's old Ford Excursion, which was packed to the brim with everything he owned. He had left home in Gypsum that day and was headed toward another season of playing lacrosse for the university in Grand Junction. His older brother, Philip, also attended the school and played lacrosse. Ahead of him was a new apartment, new classes and college adventures with friends.

But as he drove through the De Beque Canyon, nearing Palisade around 9:30 p.m., something changed high up on the cliffs above the road.

Google Maps_De Beque Canyon
The above photo from Google Maps (left) appears to show one of the large boulders (upper right) that fell from the cliffside in August 2023. The boulder appears to be missing from CDOT's photo on the right.

Whatever small force that had been holding up a massive boulder collapsed, sending the giant rock and other debris down to the road. It slammed into I-70 near milepost 49, according to Sgt. Troy Kessler with Colorado State Patrol.

Peterson was not hit by the huge boulder, but large rock fragments rained down on his car, shattering his windshield and hitting his head.

de beque rockfall

He drove another mile and a half before he veered into the cement median and somebody called 911, according to a verified GoFundMe started by a family friend. By a stroke of luck, an off-duty first responder was nearby — that person called for either an ambulance's immediate help or a Flight for Life helicopter.

Petersen was transported to St. Mary’s Hospital in Grand Junction for emergency brain surgery. Doctors placed him in a medically induced coma.

"If he didn’t get to the hospital, his brain would continue to bleed, resulting in death," the GoFundMe reads. "But he did not die that night. Maybe partly due to the serendipitous luck of having an off-duty first responder on the scene or partly due to having a neurosurgeon on call and available to perform surgery or maybe partly due to his spirit, his stubbornness, his strength and his will to live."

Meanwhile, officials closed part of the interstate to clear the boulders and smaller rocks from the road. One significantly large boulder had to be broken using drilling equipment. De Beque Canyon is one of the most common areas for rockfall on roads in the state.

CDOT De Beque Canyon large boulder
CDOT crews worked through Aug. 19 to remove a large boulder and rocks from I-70 in De Beque Canyon.

A few days later, Peterson woke up in a bed in the hospital's intensive care unit.

A family friend said he will need substantial in-patient rehabilitation therapy. She created the GoFundMe to help his family cover the medical expenses, which may continue for weeks, months or beyond.

"Erich has the will but we need the help to give him the way," the family friend wrote on GoFundMe. "Erich has demonstrated all of the characteristics he had before this accident in his recovery. He is determined, focused, caring, loyal, funny, athletic, independent, and strong willed. These traits will carry him through. But his life, as he knew it, will forever be changed."

Lacrosse coaches with CMU visited Petersen in the hospital on Wednesday, said Kelsey Coleman, director of public relations for the university.

Colorado Mesa University student injured by rockfall

CMU Lacrosse Coach Troy Moyer said Petersen was in good spirits, even with his head injury. Luckily, he was barely bruised otherwise, Moyer said.

"He seemed to be himself — (that's) actually how I put it to his mom when we were leaving," he said. "And it's the same old Erich, you know. Still cracking jokes, still wanting to get out of there and make it a quick recovery, even though he's got a little bit of a long road ahead of him."

Moyer described Petersen as a great, competitive, tenacious kid with a funny personality.

"He loves the sport," Moyer said. "And you can tell that every time he's out there, even when things aren't going his way, he's not going to be one to give up. He just sticks to it and keeps working hard."


He's now putting that effort toward healing.

Petersen has been surrounded by family since the accident. Some of his teammates will head over to visit him over the next few days, Moyer said.

"I know he's excited to see the guys again," he said. "All he could really talk about was getting back to CMU and playing lacrosse. And so I think that, you know, not only speaks to him and his character, but also part of what we bring to the table as an institution and a program — something that you can't wait to get back and be a part of."

Petersen had actually returned to school on Aug. 17, ahead of the start of classes, to help first-year students move in. He had then left to pack up his belongings at home and was struck by the rockfall while driving back to move into his new apartment.

"You know, he's a fighter and he's going to do what he needs to do to get back. It's important that we continue to support the family, because no one can imagine what they're really going through," Moyer said. "And so whatever we're able to provide to them, whether it is words of encouragement, support, or financially like through that GoFundMe page, I think just to get as many people on board with that as possible is going to be extremely helpful."

Colorado teen seriously injured in I-70 rock fall near Palisade

The school and its sports teams have shared the GoFundMe far and wide to garner support for the family. Lacrosse communities across the state have also shared the fund website.

"Nobody ever really plans for something like this and everything that it comes with," Moyer said. "And so, any way we can support them in what's still to come — because it's going to be a long road — I think that will be greatly appreciated on their behalf."

While it's not yet clear when Petersen will be able to return to school, Moyer said he is headed to a Craig neurorehabilitation facility, which is one of the best in the country.

"And so there's no doubt that he'll be in the best hands and as long as Erich keeps putting up the fight, like I know he will, I can imagine that he will proceed at the rate he is meant to proceed," Moyer said.

The GoFundMe has a goal of $100,000. Within 20 hours, more than 430 people had donated, providing the family with more than $37,000.

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