GEORGETOWN, COLO (CBS/AP) -- Investigators were trying to determine Wednesday why five workers trapped 1,500 to 2,000 feet underground inside an empty water tunnel died following a chemical fire at a hydroelectric plant.
They had breathing masks and oxygen dropped in, but by the time the fire was out and rescuers reached the men, it was too late, reports Rick Sallinger of CBS station KCNC. It's not believed the victims ever reached the oxygen.
Crews who entered from the bottom of the sloping tunnel to put out the fire discovered the bodies late Tuesday, Clear Creek County Undersheriff Stu Nay said.
Those trapped had only two ways out: 1,000 feet straight up, or through the fire, Nay said Wednesday.
They were among a group of nine contract maintenance workers in the tunnel when a machine used to coat the inside of the 12-foot-wide pipe with epoxy caught fire, said Xcel Energy spokeswoman Ethnie Groves. Xcel refused to release the name of the contractors' employer.
The incident was originally described as an explosion but officials later said it was a fire.
Four workers below the fire were able to scramble out of the bottom of the 4,000-foot-long tunnel. Two of the four were treated for chemical inhalation, and one was airlifted to a hospital, Groves said.
The contractors worked for RPI Coating of Santa Fe Springs, Calif.
"We're devastated over the loss," said Marc Dyer, a spokesman for RPI Coating. "They were very experienced guys. They were some of our best."
The coroner's office was working to identify the workers, whose names had not been released early Wednesday. The Colorado Bureau of Investigation, the federal Occupational Health and Safety Administration and Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms will take part in the investigation.
Officials initially expressed hope that the trapped workers, who had reached the underground facility by elevator, could be saved. Groves first reported that authorities had communicated with the five by radio about 45 minutes after the fire broke out, and that the men said they were unhurt.
Marc Dyer, RPI CoatingThe nine workers were sealing the inside of the pipe to prevent corrosion when equipment they were using malfunctioned and ignited a fire at 2 p.m.
"We want to express our deepest sympathies to the families, friends and co-workers of those who died," said Tim Taylor, president and CEO, Public Service Company of Colorado, an Xcel Energy company. "Certainly, we'll be working closely with the authorities to investigate what happened."
The underground tunnel delivers water from a reservoir to turbines that generate electricity and empties into a second, smaller reservoir. The plant, technically called a pumped storage facility, is located high in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado.
Xcel said the tunnel initially rises 1,500 feet at a gentle sloping angle, then another 1,500 feet at a 15-degree angle. The pipe then rises 1,000 feet at a 55-degree angle before running vertical for its final 50 feet.
The fire broke out about halfway into the pipe. The five workers were trapped at the junction of the 15-degree pipe and the 55-degree pipe, Xcel said.
Personnel from at least a dozen agencies, including a mine rescue crew and an Alpine rescue team, rushed to the site 2 miles outside Georgetown, a former mining town whose mountain views, Victorian buildings and bighorn sheep attract tourists.
Officials were able to lower breathing masks and pipe in oxygen to the men, who had scrambled up the tunnel and sought shelter behind a temporary valve used to prevent water from seeping into the pipe, said Maj. Rick Albers of the Clear Creek County sheriff's department.
At 5:40 p.m., the mine crew entered the bottom of the tunnel to extinguish the fire. At the top of the tunnel, rescuers waited to rappel their way down to reach the workers but authorities later said they decided it would be safer to reach the workers from the bottom.
Details on the progress of the rescue effort later became more scarce.
Company officials told reporters they were unsure when the last contact with the trapped workers occurred. Xcel spokesman Tom Henley said he was unaware of any communication that occurred after the initial contact, 45 minutes after the fire began.
A news briefing promised for 8:30 p.m. was postponed. An hour later there was a flurry of activity as a line of emergency vehicles, their red brake lights visible in the dark, zig-zagged their way down from the site in the Guanella Pass, 11,669 feet above sea level.
Soon after that, officials announced that the bodies had been found.
The hydroelectric plant generates electricity by releasing water from the top reservoir into the lower reservoir, then pumping the water back to the upper reservoir. It was completed in 1967.
Posted by LS