Couple begins rebuilding process after horrific tragedy
Clint Coerdt and Kate Sartain were wearing clothes their friends gave them, sitting on the porch of an Aspen home another friend is letting them use for the remainder of the summer and into the fall. They were just six weeks removed from the most horrific day of their lives, and they were grateful.
“Every single thing you see us wearing right now, it’s because someone in Aspen or someone donated from afar,” Sartain said Friday next to her fiance, who is recovering from burn injuries he suffered from a tragic house fire in the early-morning hours of June 13. “We had nothing.”
Coerdt, 40, lost his mother, Suni, and father, Henry. Sartain’s two dogs died, their ranch home was destroyed and third-degree burns cover 44% of Coerdt’s body.
A nearby barn also was totally destroyed, as well as an RV camper parked between the two structures.
The totality of the couple’s emotional and physical suffering would easily be enough to make them curl up in self pity.
These two, however, refuse to entertain that option. They have a network of friends who won’t let them either. Their friends provide them daily dinners through a meal train. Some other friends got them a yurt for their ranch property. Others set up a GoFundMe account that as of Wednesday morning had generated $432,689 in donations via 1,400 contributors.
“The community is not going to let us fail,” Sartain said. “What success means to me and Clint, success obviously means Clint healing, which he will, and he will be making a complete recovery. I think success is Kate and Clint rebuilding the ranch, and success is obviously being part of this community and giving back to us what they have given us during this tragedy.”
In the weeks and days leading up to that fateful Monday morning in Old Snowmass, the engaged couple were both elated about the moment they were living in and excited about what the future held. It would all unravel in a matter of minutes.
“We worked relentlessly on that place,” said Coerdt, who bought the property in July 2020. He and Sartain became engaged a week later. “We wanted to make a happy little farm. We had gotten goats three days before the fire and we were working on fences.”
Their upcoming mid-August wedding weekend, set for a ceremony in Emma on a Saturday and a grand celebration at the newlywed couple’s ranch the next day, would have to wait.
“This tragedy is so layered in so many ways,” said Sartain, 37, trying to fight back tears. “It’s a horrible tragedy to lose your parents together, and my dogs, my Bernese mountain dog (Benson) and Tango was a rescue from Lucky Day (Animal Rescue). Losing my dogs, they even went to the grocery store with me. They were my everything.”
There has yet to be a funeral or memorial service for Coerdt’s parents. The couple wants to do it the proper way and not rush it. But now is not the time. There are mounds of insurance and estate matters to address, not to mention the healing process and the emotional toll.
Kate then looked toward Clint. She rested her right hand on his left thigh.
“Losing a dog is very sad or losing your home or suffering this type of injury,” she said. “All of those in their own way are horrible. Put it all together and it happens in one minute in your life, there are just so many layers that come come with it.”
Coerdt and Sartain didn’t know each other until they moved to the Aspen area in the early 2010s seeking that Colorado mountain lifestyle defined by outdoors and community.
Coerdt had moved to Colorado from the Cleveland area, and Sartain, raised in Maryland, relocated from Washington, D.C.
Given their parents were from different parts of the country, they had not met each other until June. The two families had a lot of getting-to-know-each-other to do — Coerdt and Sartain, after all, were getting married Aug. 19.
That their parents met for the first time in June had been cause for elation. Sartain and Coerdt also were giddy about where they were building their lives together, in an idyllic setting in Old Snowmass encompassing nearly 40 acres with trails to explore and mushrooms to pick, and places for Coerdt to hunt, land for their own garden to tend, and ample space for goats and future livestock to roam and be raised.
“The lead-up to the fire was one of the coolest experiences we had ever had,” recalled Coerdt, who had built up a loyal following as a bartender at Steakhouse 316 in Aspen. “The six, seven days of our parents hanging out, my parents helping me with stuff on the ranch, having dinners, porch time. We did a major event Saturday night at Steakhouse where my parents got to meet a lot of my longtime bar guests, people that I’d known for many years.
“My mom and dad had blast.”
Added Sartain: “And they were proud of that ranch.”
On June 11, Sartain’s parents returned home to Maryland. Coerdt’s parents were staying on the ranch that week, and on June 12 while he was working, Sartain enjoyed the day with her future in-laws.
“Suni and Henry and I went to Steakhouse and had an awesome dinner and went back to the ranch and that day — we had an excavator on the property that we had rented — and we had just gotten the goats,” Sartain said. “So Henry and I walked around the ranch and looked at some of the projects that got done that day … and Suni and I went to put the goats to bed and the three of us sat on the porch until it was bedtime. It was a very uneventful evening, to say the least.”
By 1 a.m., Clint had returned home from work. Nothing seemed unusual or out of the ordinary when he went to bed, he recalled. All of the home’s three bedrooms were on the top floor.
“The next thing I know,” Sartain said, “is I wake up. I’m the first one to wake up, there was smoke pouring through the windows, and I just started screaming,”
Sartain woke up Coerdt and banged on his parents’ bedroom door.
“I knew they were asleep and I was trying to get them up,” she said.
At the time the house was quiet, but the smell of the smoke was building.
“You couldn’t hear a thing and it was so quiet,” Coerdt said. “You could only smell smoke and didn’t think it was anything big and I raced to the basement, grabbed the fire extinguisher and when I looked out, our garage had a garage door with a window on it. I opened the window and looked out, and the whole porch was on fire.”
By that time, Sartain had retreated outside. The heat had become unbearable.
“I ran upstairs to their bedroom to try and get my parents out of there,” said Coerdt. “And I was immediately hit by a heat blast. I didn’t burn in flames. These were all heat-related injuries. The thing just hit me, and I remember I bumped into my dad in the hallway and I jumped through the window and rolled off the roof and landed on the gravel.”
Sartain was right where Coerdt landed.
“He fell at my feet,” Sartain said, “and he started screaming ‘jump, jump!’, trying to get his parents to jump and I heard his mom and they just couldn’t make it. They couldn’t make it. It literally happened so fast.”
“We had under a minute to get out of the house,” Coerdt added. “It went from sleeping to being right outside.”
Coerdt, meanwhile, was in extreme pain from the burns. By this time the home was engulfed in fire.
In the back of Coerdt’s Tacoma, which was parked on the property, were 15 gallons of diesel gas cans to load up the excavator for the next day’s projects. Another 10 gallons of gas were in the home’s garage, and four or five propane tanks were in the vicinity for the gas-powered equipment.
Coerdt believes the fire spread from the home’s porch into the front room on the ground level, and then over the deck and into the bedrooms upstairs.
“The windows on the backside of the house were open so they were just sucking everything,” he said. “But there was not spitting or anything like that, it was like a blue and yellow orange wave going through the house. It was so surreal that I’d never seen anything like that.
“Usually when you see a fire like that, it’s big and angry. This was just quiet. Even when the house was on fire, we didn’t hear it,” Coerdt continued. “There was no crackling or exploding or anything like that; it was just air sucking through and heat building from those tinder-dry logs that the house was built out of.”
Living in a remote area, the couple jumped in their Jeep and looked for help and found some neighbors who called 911. Coerdt and Sartain’s cellphones were inside the house.
“It hurt, but I wasn’t screaming,” Coerdt said.
When paramedics arrived, Coerdt refused aid and got on the gurney under his own power.
“If you tried to touch me, my skin was going to fall off,” he said.
Coerdt was rushed to Aspen Valley Hospital and then airlifted to a Denver hospital with an ICU burn unit.
He was there for 27 days and he will continue treatment for the foreseeable future.
His back was nearly completely scorched; it has since been grafted with good skin. Both of his burnt arms are dressed with compression. He routinely does physical therapy. Mornings can be especially rough. He oftentimes wakes up stiff and in pain.
“The morning is the hardest part of the day,” Sartain said. “His wounds require about three or four hours of treatment every morning.”
Coerdt goes for short walks when he can. But he can’t go outdoors when the sun is shining because of his skin’s sensitivity.
The couple went to the ranch last week. They already are looking to rebuild but know it will take time.
“People come out of the woodworks that you would never expect to hear from,” Sartain said. “And we just thought, we’re going to hang a sign over the front door of the house that says ‘The House That Aspen Built,’ because it truly is.
“In every sense of the word, we’re saying ‘The House that Aspen Built’ not just because of the financial help but even the emotional support that has been provided to us,” she continued. “A meal train, people signing up to bring us food. Or the month that he was in the hospital, where people were making sure I was OK in the hotel and not alone.”
Coerdt’s parents were both retired when they died. His father was 75 and his mother 70. They also were grandparents to Coerdt’s sister’s two children. His sister, Chapin, and mother were best friends, Coerdt said.
The couple plan to build a memorial meadow on their ranch where they will spread some of the ashes of Coerdt’s parents.
“It sucks losing your parents,” he said. “But the saving grace is they went out together. They were so in love that they wouldn’t have survived without each other.”
The fire was reported to emergency dispatchers at 2:15 a.m. on June 13. The cause of the fire has not been determined. Pitkin County Sheriff’s Deputy Bruce Benjamin, who has led the investigation, said the devastation was so thorough that he doesn’t know if the cause ever will be known.
Coerdt and Sartain still plan to wed Aug. 19 but without the pageantry and fanfare. They hope to do that around August next year and also celebrate the lives of Suni and Henry.
On June 10, three days before the fire permanently altered their lives, life was good and their future oozed with promise and excitement.
“We had a Polaris (ATV), and our nightly routine when Clint wasn’t working was to go to the Polaris with the dogs in the back,” Sartain said. “And we’d go to the monastery and we’d do this really awesome ride, we called it a safari, and you saw from the top the first sunset and the gongs would go on in the monastery as they’re doing prayer, and I remember looking at Clint literally three days before this happened and said, ‘It just keeps getting better, doesn’t it?’ It was truly pure happiness, looking down.”
Then came the early-morning hours of June 13, one that is shrouded in mystery because the cause of the fire remains unknown. For Sartain and Coerdt, however, that is of little or no concern.
“At the end of the day, when people ask me if it bothers me that I don’t know what caused it, I don’t want to know,” Sartain said. “I actually have a peace of mind not knowing what caused it. Nothing is going to change and what happened in our lives is not going to change. Our focus is to not be angry and not let anything hold us back. We can’t hold any anger.”