Search for children suspended after lodge explodes near Paonia |

Search for children suspended after lodge explodes near Paonia

Erin Gartner
The Associated Press

PAONIA ” An active search was called off Sunday for three youngsters missing since a fiery explosion destroyed a remote mountain lodge where they were last seen.

Delta County Sheriff Fred McKee declined to say whether the victims ” ages 3, 12 and 15 ” were presumed dead. The county coroner said he had not yet received word of any deaths.

“This situation is certainly very grave,” he said. “We have no one actively looking anywhere but at the scene.”

The three missing children were from the same extended family that owned the lodge, McKee said. The family was “doing as well as could be expected,” he said. The victims’ names were not released.

The charred rubble of the Electric Mountain Lodge was still too hot Sunday for fire investigators and search crews to enter, McKee said. The explosion that ignited the lodge Saturday may have been caused by propane, which was used for heating.

Heavy, deep snow made access to the lodge difficult for rescue workers, who used helicopters and snowmobiles to transport injured people off the mountain late Saturday afternoon. The lodge is only accessible by ground via a rugged, 17-mile snowmobile trail in the winter.

“We need to get heavy equipment into the area, but due to the terrain, we are having some problems doing that,” McKee said. “Fortunately, this time of year things melt pretty quick, but it is still causing delays.”

The lodge, in the Gunnison National Forest on the western slopes of the Rockies, was largely used as a backcountry meeting place for snowmobilers. Some people standing outside rushed into the lodge after the explosion to help those inside before flames engulfed the structure, McKee said.

Injuries ranged from smoke inhalation to “serious compound fractures,” and 16 victims were taken to hospitals, authorities said.

The lodge, about 230 miles southwest of Denver, and three attached condos were destroyed, McKee said.

The Rev. Rick Clair, pastor of the nearby Crawford United Methodist Church, said he rushed to a school serving as a command center Saturday night in Paonia after hearing about the explosion. The trailhead to the lodge is about 8 miles north of town.

“I came up to see what I could do, and we just took care of the families as best we could,” he said. Townspeople began gathering, bringing food, clothing and other supplies for the victims, he said.

Many people were scared and cold when they first arrived at the school, Red Cross volunteer Terry Wilson said.

“There were some concerned people, understandably,” said Wilson, his voice shaking as he described a scene of people checking names on a missing persons list. “They were definitely hovering around the list,” he said.

Several ambulances unable to get to the lodge were stationed outside the school as a helicopter landed nearby, Wilson said. The weather was clear enough for Flight for Life helicopters Saturday, but a thick fog hung over the mountain peak as snow and rain moved into the area Sunday.

Steve Douglas, one of the lodge’s co-owners, was tending bar when he heard a large explosion. He told The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel that he believed there was a gas leak under one of the adjacent condominiums.

Douglas’ fiancee was on the third floor when the explosion occurred. “She rode it down like an elevator,” he said of the building’s collapse.

A family reunion was scheduled for the building. “Luckily, everyone hadn’t arrived. It was pretty vacant at the time,” Douglas said.

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