3 missing after Colorado mudslide

Unstable conditions put search on hold

May 27, 2014

Rescue teams failed to find any sign Monday of three men missing after a ridge saturated with rain collapsed, sending mud sliding for 3 miles in a remote part of western Colorado.

The three people, Clancy Nichols, 51, a county road and bridge employee, his son, Danny, 24, and Wes Hawkins, 46, have been missing since Sunday after the ridge collapsed. They had driven to the location of a smaller mudslide that had happened earlier in the day, according to officials. They were inspecting a problem with the irrigation system on the mountain.

Deputies estimate that the entire ridge had been moving for most of Sunday before someone called to report the slide at 6:15 p.m., describing it as sounding like a freight train. Mesa County Sheriff Stan Hilkey believes runoff from Gran mesa from recent rain triggered the slide. A hydrologist from the natural Weather Service and a geologist from the U.S. Geological Survey were helping authorities assess the situation.

In all likelihood, the three men are now trapped under the mass of debris that fell down the hill during the mudslide. Rescuers spent all day Monday searching the lower portion of the mountain, but didn’t find any of the missing men.

The search near the small town of Colbran has been hampered because only the lower third of the slide is stable. Even at the edges, the mud in 20 to 30 feet deep. It’s believed to be several hundred feet deep and about a half mile wide. For now, the search has been put on hold, because the area is too unstable.

From a distance of about 10 miles, the slide looked like a funnel, narrowing into a culvert below. It cut a giant channel through trees. The creek that once gradually flowed down the ridge now spurted down like a waterfall. Roads in the area, where some cattle grazed, were muddy from rain.

No structures or roads were affected in the remote area of western Colorado, about an hour east of Grand Junction. A drone was used to try to detect heat sources from the missing near the edge of Grand Mesa, one of the world’s highest flat-topped mountains.

While the surrounding area is popular place for fishing, hiking and camping, the slide hit on land with an access gate that isn’t open to the public. No one else is believed missing.

Energy companies were monitoring oil and gas wells in the area, part of the productive Piceance Basin, but so far the mud has only come up to the edge of one pad operated by Occidental Petroleum Corp. The three wells there have been shut down, said David, Ludlam, executive director of the West Slope Colorado Oil & Gas Association, a trade group.

Residents and Mesa County Sherriff Stan Hilkey said they were praying for a miracle.

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