Fire at generating plant traps 5 workers |

Fire at generating plant traps 5 workers

Judith Kohler
The Associated Press
Aspen, CO Colorado

GEORGETOWN, Colo. ” A chemical fire at a hydroelectric plant outside this mountain town trapped five workers in an empty water tunnel about 1,000 feet below ground Tuesday.

All five were communicating with rescuers, Clear Creek County Emergency Director Kathleen Gaubatz said. Firefighters were battling the fire as search and rescuers rappelled down a tunnel toward the trapped workers.

Nine workers were in the tunnel when the fire broke out at 2 p.m. on a machine being used to coat the inside of the 48-inch pipe with epoxy, Xcel Energy spokeswoman Ethnie Groves said. The structural integrity of the dam was not compromised.

Four workers below the fire were able to scramble out the bottom of the tunnel, which leads to a small reservoir. The five trapped workers rushed uphill to a section of the pipe that had been blocked off to prevent ground water from seeping into it.

At 5:40 p.m., a team from the Henderson Mine, a molybdenum operation near Empire, entered the tunnel from the bottom to fight the fire, Groves said. Rescuers began to rappel down the tunnel at a 55-degree incline a half hour later.

“We’re working with the sheriff’s department and many, many different agencies” to rescue the contractors, Groves said.

Xcel owns the Cabin Creek Station plant outside Georgetown, about 30 miles west of Denver.

Two of the four workers who scrambled from the pipe were treated for chemical inhalation. One was airlifted to a hospital, Groves said.

It was unclear whether the five trapped workers were injured. Crews were able to send breathing masks and pump air to the trapped workers about 45 minutes after the fire started, said Maj. Rick Albers of the Clear County sheriff department.

The incident was originally described as an epoxy paint explosion. The water tunnel was shut down for routine maintenance when the fire broke out.

“They’re up a ways from the fire, a safe distance, waiting for the appropriate fire and rescue personnel to respond,” Xcel spokesman Tom Henley said.

The underground channel is called a penstock, which delivers water from a reservoir to turbines that generate electricity.

The maintenance was being done by a contractor, but Xcel did not release the contractor’s name or any details of what the workers were doing.

The hydroelectric plant generates electricity during peak times of demand by releasing water from one reservoir into a lower reservoir, then pumping the water back to the upper reservoir. It was built from 1964 to 1967 and is located about 2 miles southwest of Georgetown at 10,018 feet above sea level.