Three children presumed dead after explosion at mountain lodge |

Three children presumed dead after explosion at mountain lodge

the associated press
Delta County Sheriff Sgt. William Palmer mans a road block on Stevens Gulch road below the Electric Mountain Lodge Sunday, March 20, 2005, in Paonia, Colo. The lodge was destroyed by an explosion Saturday. (AP Photo/The Denver Post, Ed Kosmicki)

PAONIA ” Three children are presumed dead in an explosion that leveled a remote lodge in western Colorado, the sheriff said Monday, and searchers were combing the rubble for their bodies.

“We’re putting teams up there to start the recovery and continue the investigation,” Delta County Sheriff Fred McKee said.

The three children, ages 3, 12 and 16, 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.

Authorities said 16 people were taken to the hospital with injuries ranging from smoke inhalation to “serious compound fractures.”

Despite heavy snowfall overnight, searchers got one piece of heavy equipment up a rugged mountain trail to start clearing the charred remains of the lodge, McKee said.

An explosion and fire Saturday quickly leveled the Electric Mountain Lodge, leaving only two chimneys and smoldering rubble, witnesses said. Authorities have said the explosion may have been caused by propane, which was used to heat the lodge.

The lodge was on a creek surrounded by aspen trees and mountain meadows on the scenic Grand Mesa in the Gunnison National Forest, about 230 miles southwest of Denver.

Heavy, deep snow made access difficult for rescue workers, who used helicopters and snowmobiles to transport injured people off the mountain Saturday. The lodge is about 17 miles from Paonia up a steep road, most of which is unpaved and only accessible by snowmobile in the winter.

Dozens of residents with snowmobiles around the small town of 1,500 swarmed to the scene Saturday to help rescuers reach the lodge.

Don Holt, 39, and his brother Brad, 41, a volunteer firefighter, used their own snowmobiles to carry firefighters and medical personnel to the remote site. They were among the first people called to the trailhead just outside of town.

“The victims that were at the lodge, the ones that were injured, were obviously upset. They had just been through and seen some pretty traumatic events,” Don Holt said. “It was a somber, gut-wrenching, heartfelt ordeal.”

He said people were helping and comforting each other but giving medical personnel the space they needed.

“Those scenes and those scenarios are always hard, especially when kids are involved. That was the hardest part of it,” Holt said.

Some people standing outside the lodge when it exploded rushed inside to help those inside before flames engulfed the structure, McKee said.

Two of the business partners in the lodge, Mike and Nancy Hughes, were among the injured. Mike Hughes was listed in serious condition Monday at St. Mary’s Hospital in Grand Junction; Nancy Hughes was in fair condition. Their injuries were not disclosed. A hospital spokeswoman did not immediately return a message Monday morning.

Paonia resident Mike Hinton, 47, said he works at a coal mill with Mike Hughes, but that his co-worker spent a lot of his time at the lodge. “It’s like his second life,” Hinton said. “He was always up there.”

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.

“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 to gather, bringing food, clothing and other supplies for the victims, he said.

“It’s kind of heartening,” said Deven Felix, a helicopter pilot who flew to the lodge to help out. “You hear about stories about people in big cities, people getting hurt and people walking by. That’s definitely not happening here.”

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.

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