Authorities believe trapped tunnel workers died from smoke, fumes | AspenTimes.com

Authorities believe trapped tunnel workers died from smoke, fumes

P. Solomon Banda
The Associated Press
Aspen, CO Colorado

GEORGETOWN, Colo. ” Authorities believe smoke and fumes from a chemical fire likely killed five workers trapped in an underground pipeline at a hydroelectric plant in the Rockies, but the investigation into what went wrong continued Thursday.

The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the U.S. Chemical Safety Board are focusing on conditions inside the confined space and what type of protection and safety training the maintenance crew had, among other things, OSHA spokesman Rich Kulczewski said. The probe was expected to take months.

Xcel Energy was coordinating its own investigation into the fire at its Cabin Creek power plant with OSHA, spokeswoman Ethnie Groves said. It wasn’t known how long plant operations might be affected. Maintenance originally had been scheduled to last until mid-November.

The workers were identified as Donald Dejaynes, 43; Dupree Holt, 37; James St. Peters, 52; Gary Foster, 48; and Anthony Aguirre, 18; all of California. Their hometowns weren’t immediately available.

Family members arrived in Georgetown and refused comment when approached by reporters in a hotel lobby. Undersheriff Stu Nay said he didn’t plan to make them available while they were grieving.

The victims’ bodies were taken to the Jefferson County coroner’s office in Golden, 30 miles east of here. Clear Creek County Coroner Don Allan did not immediately return a message on when the autopsies will be conducted.

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The men, whose bodies were found scattered along a 200-foot length of the 12-foot-wide pipe, didn’t have any burn marks, indicating that they probably died from the smoke and fumes from the chemical fire, Clear Creek Undersheriff Stu Nay said.

Nay said the blaze erupted while they were coating the tunnel with a mixture of paint and epoxy. The mixture is kept in a hopper to warm it up so it will flow through a sprayer. Nay said the workers were having problems spraying it so they added a solvent to the hopper and the hopper’s heating element inadvertently turned on, igniting the vapors.

When the fire broke out Tuesday, the five workers scrambled past a bulkhead used to keep their work area dry. They radioed to their co-workers that they were OK, except for minor injuries, but fire blocked their downhill escape route. The steep 55-degree incline of the tunnel above them kept them trapped more than 1,500 feet below the ground. Then the radio went dead.

Hopeful that it was an equipment malfunction, officials lowered breathing masks and air tanks to the men while they planned to attack the fire from the bottom end of the tunnel. Nay said Wednesday he wasn’t sure if the men would have seen the masks and tanks because of the smoke.

By the time emergency crews reached the workers, about a half-mile from the tunnel’s bottom exit six hours later, they were dead.

“It’s the degree of the climb and it was probably slick and there wasn’t any way they could make it past (the bulkhead) that much,” Nay said.

Authorities defended their rescue efforts, saying smoke, the complexities of the 4,000-foot tunnel’s design and uncertainties about the dangers delayed their entrance into the tunnel after the men for more than 31/2 hours after the blaze broke out.

Nay said one crew did go in about 11/2 hours after the fire broke out but had to turn back because of the thick smoke. Large fans, which had to be trucked in from Denver, were placed at the bottom of the tunnel to draw out smoke.

“We didn’t know what was causing the fire, what was feeding the fire,” Nay said.

Nine employees of RPI Coating of Santa Fe Springs, Calif., had been sealing the inside of the pipe to prevent corrosion, a routine procedure that followed an annual inspection. Two others were working outside and one of them was injured after running in to try to help the others.

Four workers escaped from the tunnel, which delivers water from a reservoir to turbines that generate electricity at the plant 30 miles west of Denver.

“We’re devastated over the loss,” RPI Coating spokesman Marc Dyer said. “They were very experienced guys. They were some of our best.”