Authorities defend rescue effort after 5 die in power plant fire |

Authorities defend rescue effort after 5 die in power plant fire

Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado

GEORGETOWN (AP) ” Five maintenance workers trying to escape an underground fire had nowhere to go. For a few critical hours, neither did the people trying to rescue them.

The workers were trapped Tuesday in a more-than-4,000-foot-long water pipeline, the only escape route blocked when a machine they were using to coat the tunnel with a sealant caught fire.

Had they been able to run the other way ” like four surviving co-workers did ” escape could have been as simple as running out of the pipe. Instead, all they could do was go up the 12-foot-wide pipeline as far as they could, to where the tunnel bends from a 15-degree angle to an impossible 55-degree one.

Their radio went out, but officials at the surface dropped another to them. About 40 minutes after the fire broke out, the workers used it to say they were uninjured.

That may have been the workers’ last communication, Undersheriff Stu Nay said.

Alpine rescue team rappelers prepared to enter the tunnel from the top, but fear of toxic fumes and the difficulties of getting victims out that way led officials to give up that idea, Nay said. At the other end, smoke, the complexities of the tunnel’s design and uncertainties about the dangers, prevented rescuers from going in after the men for more than 3 1/2 hours after the blaze broke out.

Powerful fans were used to drive air into the tunnel and clear smoke so the trapped crew members could breathe.

Rescuers also dropped breathing masks and air tanks into the tunnel. Nay said it was unclear whether the workers were ever able to find them.

When rescuers made it to the workers, six hours after the fire erupted, they were dead.

On Wednesday, a day after the tragedy more than 1,500 feet underground at Xcel Corp.’s Cabin Creek power plant, investigators struggled to figure out what went wrong, and insisted they couldn’t get to the victims sooner.

“We didn’t know what was causing the fire, what was feeding the fire,” Nay said. “You never know, when you’re dealing with airflow and the intensity of the fire where we’re facing a backdraft situation, what we’re running into.”

“We can’t afford to have someone else go in and complicate the problem.”

It was unclear whether the five maintenance workers were burned, suffocated or overcome by fumes from the highly flammable epoxy sealant they were using to coat the inside of the empty water pipeline.

Crews late Wednesday were removing the bodies after air quality tests determined it was safe enough to re-enter the tunnel. Family members headed to the scene, Nay said.

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

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 the pipe and one of them was injured when he ran back into the tunnel to help when the fire broke out.

The tunnel delivers water from a reservoir to turbines that generate electricity at the plant 30 miles west of Denver.

The smoldering fire broke out about 1,400 feet from the tunnel’s bottom and was reported about 2 p.m., officials said.

The blaze erupted when a machine used by the workers to coat the tunnel with a mixture of paint and expoxy caught fire, Xcel Energy spokeswoman Ethnie Groves said. Nay said the mixture is kept in a hopper to warm it up so will flow throw a sprayer. He said they 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.

Four RPI workers escaped from the tunnel and were treated at a hospital and released. Five others scrambled about 1,000 feet above the fire but were trapped by smoke and the steep slope at the bend in the tunnel, Nay said.

A crew from Colorado’s Henderson molybdenum mine, specially trained in confined-space rescues and firefighting, began making its way through the smoke in the tunnel at 5:40 p.m., officials said. At 8:10 p.m., the crew reached the trapped men, discovered they were dead, and retreated, Nay said.

“We were just expecting that they would be rescued,” said Georgetown resident Joanne Mahlowitz, choking up as she spoke with Associated Press Television News. “The last thing we heard, rescue was imminent. We didn’t watch the news for a long time and then we heard they were dead and it was just terribly tragic.”

The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the U.S. Chemical Safety Board are investigating.

The agencies will focus, among other things, on conditions inside the confined space and what type of protection and safety training the maintenance crew had, OSHA spokesman Rich Kulczewski said.

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

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