Our History: Disasters plagued the area in the 1980s
The Post Independent this year is celebrating local institutions’ anniversaries — including our own — with a special feature many Sundays through the year. The PI traces its roots back 127 years, but our publication volume number is 125, while the White River National Forest looks back on 125 years and Colorado Mountain College marks 50 years.
Today we offer the 10th installment of Post Independent history and the events it chronicled locally in the 1980s.
“No one said much. There as only waiting, and the thought of the worst was clearly written across everyone’s face throughout the night at the entrance to Mid-Continent Resources’ property here.
“Friends, co-workers and family members were up there trapped in Dutch Creek No. 1 mine since an explosion at about 4:15 p.m. Wednesday. One waiting miner explained how he had called in sick that day or he would have been with them. He had a deep, sad look on his face and said no more.”
The pages of the Glenwood Post were filled with such devastating news in the 1980s. Along with this story, which appeared April 16, 1981, the paper’s front page included two others about the Redstone mine explosion that trapped 15 miners the day prior.
The miners were found, all dead, by that Friday morning.
Seven miners made it out of the mine safely. David Chiarello, then 28, described the experience: “It was like a hurricane. I turned myself around and tucked my head. I was just eating so much dust, I couldn’t see anything. I just had a feeling like, ‘Oh God,’ and I knew right then and there it was an explosion,” he said.
The mine eventually went bankrupt and shut down in 1991.
It was only one of several prominent tragedies that filled the pages of the Glenwood Post the 1980s. Little more than a year later, oil shale development led to economic recession when Exxon decided to pull out of Parachute.
“The seriousness of the situation may hinge on Union Oil’s ability to absorb Colony’s workforce and house its workers in Exxon’s Battlement Mesa community near parachute,” Colorado Gov. Richard Lamm said to the Glenwood Post on May 3, 1982, the day after Exxon’s announcement. Lamm stopped short of predicting the economic disaster that plagued the area’s economy for the remainder of the decade.
At the time, Colony employed about 2,100 people at the shale project. Nearby Battlement Mesa had been developed to house the project’s employees and their families.
In the days that followed, Garfield County Undersheriff Ken Pidgeon requested additional support from Mesa, Rio Blanco and Pitkin counties, plus the Colorado State Patrol. He expressed concern about the tense environment that resulted from the announcement. Many employees were told to stay home while a plan was developed, and much was unknown in those early days.
“I’m not going to panic,” he said, “but I want to know all my cards that I can play.”
The Glenwood Post reported Battlement Mesa’s liquor store remained closed the day after the announcement, by request of the sheriff’s office, although Parachute kept liquor establishments open.
Meanwhile, Glenwood Springs Chamber of Commerce board chairman Don Metzger said, if anything, the city’s businesses could benefit.
“Had oil shale development continued at the pace it was, a lot of competitive retail development would have occurred in Rifle and Parachute,” he said to the Post.
In 1985, another tragedy rocked the community. Twelve employees died at the Rocky Mountain Natural Gas office on Devereux Road after a propane tank blasted the building Dec. 16. Fifteen people made it out of the building alive.
Officials soon determined the blast was caused by a leaking propane tank and a water heater pilot light.
The Glenwood Springs community quickly rallied around the families of those who died and the survivors. The high school hosted a memorial service, and offers of mental health services, financial aid and housing came in from many sources.
A Dec. 17 Glenwood Post editorial mourned those lost.
“Though the lighted cross still glows in the night from the side of Red Mountain, the Christmas season’s bright promise has dimmed today in Glenwood Springs,” it read. “Yet even as the tragic weight of loss bends our shoulders, bows our heads and breaks our hearts, we can see the Phoenix of our collective spirits rising from the smokey (sic) debris … It as though every resident has joined together to say, ‘Oh, God, we grieve with our friends. We can say and do nothing to ease the pain, but we are here, if they need us, in any way we can be.’”
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A Garfield County commissioner angrily denounced Pitkin County and state transportation officials Friday as “disrespectful, arrogant, gutless and selfish” for closing Independence Pass earlier this week.