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3 men remain missing in Mesa County mudslide

By: P. SOLOMON BaNDA The Associated Press
May 26, 2014 Updated: May 26, 2014 at 10:14 pm
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COLLBRAN - 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 Mesa County.

Clancy Nichols, 51, a county road and bridge employee, his son Danny, 24, and Wes Hawkins, 46, have been missing since Sunday afternoon. They went to check on damage from an initial mudslide after a rancher reported that his irrigation ditch had stopped flowing, Mesa County Sheriff Stan Hilkey said.

Hilkey said searchers and family members of the missing men, who all live on local ranches, were holding out some hope that the three could be trapped in an area with no cellphone coverage.

An aerial search Monday turned up no sign of the pickup truck and all-terrain vehicle the men used.

Hilkey called the slide so large and so deep that "it's an understatement to say it is massive."

The search near Collbran 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 about 250 feet deep in some areas and is about a half-mile wide and 3 miles long.

"Everyone on this mountain is praying for a miracle right now," Hilkey said.

Deputies estimate the ridge had been moving for most of Sunday before someone called to report the slide at 6:15 p.m. 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 authorities assess the situation.

Hawkins' cousin, Bill Clark, said he visited the canyon where the slide struck, and it was filled with mud. He said the slide struck with so much force that earth rushed up a hill and down the other side.

The slide cut a giant channel through towering trees.

"How in the devil could this happen?" said Collbran resident Lloyd Power, gazing at the slide.

While the surrounding area is popular 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 there are no structures in the area, officials said.

Energy companies were monitoring oil and gas wells in the area. The three wells there have been shut down, said David Ludlam, executive director of the West Slope Colorado Oil & Gas Association, a trade group.

The slide dwarfs the mudslide that killed 41 in Oso, Wash., in March. Hilkey said he had talked with the sheriff there to ask for advice on how to search the area.

The sheriff's office is using unmanned infrared drones that can detect heat under the ground to search the area. Search dogs may join the operation.

Lifelong Collbran resident Susie Nichols said the missing men are well known and have extended families that homesteaded in the area.

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The Denver Post contributed to this story.

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