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Smuggler Mine explosion under investigation by state, local officials

Updates expected this week; some questions yet to be answered

The sign pointing toward Smuggler Mine on Saturday, Nov. 28, 2020, in Aspen. (Photo by Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times)

After several loud explosions near the Smuggler Mine rocked Aspen on Saturday morning, local and state authorities have begun investigations into the source of the blast.

An initial news release issued by the Aspen Fire Protection District suggested that the explosions were related to mine operations from within Smuggler Mine; officials from the Aspen Fire Department visited the site Monday afternoon to continue investigating the explosions and will likely issue updates on Tuesday, said Fire Chief Rick Balentine.

The Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety, part of the state’s Department of Natural Resources, also will conduct an investigation of the explosion because Smuggler Mine holds an active tourist mine permit through the division, according to a statement from Chris Arend, the department’s communications director.



“Our understanding (is that) the incident occurred during the disposal of blasting caps, there are no reported injuries and local authorities are on site,” Arend wrote Monday in the statement. “DRMS is sending investigators to the site today to further ascertain what occurred.”

Bill York-Feirn, the mine safety director for the Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety, is the inspector leading the state’s investigation.



Pitkin County may likewise bring in an investigator, according to county commissioner Patti Clapper. Jon Peacock, the county manager, must first confer with the county attorney to determine who has jurisdiction over mine-related matters, and it’s likely the county will work with the fire department, Clapper said.

Peacock could not be reached for comment on Monday evening.

But until local and state authorities issue an update on the investigation, some questions remain.

Among those looking for answers is James Corcoran, a longtime Aspen resident who lives in the Centennial Apartments Complex on Free Silver Court, roughly a quarter-mile west of the mine.

According to Corcoran’s account, the explosions caused surface-level fires and smoke several hundred yards west on the hillside above Silverlode Drive, the result of what Corcoran said were airborne “fireballs” that may have ignited bushes and shrubs.

“I saw the fireballs fly,” Corcoran said. As for the flames that self-extinguished a few minutes later, “every one of them was a burning bush.”

Given the location distance between the fires on the hillside and the entrance to the Smuggler Mine, Corcoran isn’t 100% confident in the proposition that the explosion happened from within Smuggler Mine as initial reports suggested.

Corcoran said that he also saw two people wearing silver helmets drive onto the hillside to load several boxes into a small vehicle approximately 15 minutes after the explosions. After speaking with fire officials Monday to offer his account of the incident, Corcoran awaits the updates slated to come later this week.

“We’ll have to see what they release to you next,” Corcoran said.

Corcoran is worried not only about the danger of the recent explosion but also about the potential that a similar event would cause widespread fires were it to happen in warmer, drier conditions in the same location.

“This is 200 feet above houses on grass and bushes,” he said. “Thank God for the two little snowstorms we had, and no wind.”


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