Dean Humphrey/The (Grand Junction) Daily Sentinel
COLLBRAN – Authorities on Monday failed to find any sign of three men missing after a massive mudslide struck a remote part of western Colorado.
Fifty-one-year-old county road worker Clancy Nichols, his 24-year-old son Danny and 46-year-old Wes Hawkins have been missing since Sunday after a rain-saturated ridge collapsed.
On Monday, searchers looked for the men at the lower end of the three-mile long slide. The upper portion is considered too unstable and is at risk of sliding again.
The search is scheduled to resume today.
The men had gone Sunday to check on damage from an initial slide near the edge of Grand Mesa, one of the world’s largest flat-topped mountains, after a rancher reported that his irrigation ditch had stopped flowing, Mesa County Sheriff Stan Hilkey said.
The search near the small town of Collbran, east of Grand Junction, has been hampered because only the lower third of the slide is stable. Even at the edges, the mud is 20 to 30 feet deep. It’s believed to be several hundred feet deep and about a half mile wide.
Hilkey said no signs of the men or their truck have been found.
“Everyone on this mountain is praying for a miracle right now,” he said.
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. Hilkey believes runoff from Grand 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 assess the situation.
Bill Clark, a cousin of one of the missing men, visited the canyon where the slide struck and said it was completely filled with mud. He said the slide struck with so much force, that some also spilled into the neighboring draw.
“I’ve never seen so much earth move like that in my life,” he said.
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.
“How in the devil could this happen?” said Collbran resident Lloyd Power, gazing out at the slide.
He said residents were praying for the missing.
“That’s all we can do,” Power said.
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, and no homes were damaged.
Energy companies were monitoring gas and oil wells in the area, part of the productive Piceance Basin, but so far, the mud has come up to the edge of only 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.
Hilkey said he’d received a telephone call from authorities in Washington state, where a March 22 landslide swept a square mile of dirt, sand and silt through a neighborhood in Oso, about an hour northeast of Seattle. That slide leveled homes and killed at least 43 people.