December 19, 2014

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5 workers dead after fire at Colorado hydroelectric plant

GEORGETOWN, Colo. A chemical fire ignited at a hydroelectric plant outside this mountain town and five workers who were trapped in an empty water tunnel there were found dead, authorities said Tuesday.

Crews went in from the bottom of the tunnel to put out the fire and found the workers’ bodies, said Clear Creek County undersheriff Stu Nay.

"We have found the parties. We have five fatalities," Nay said.

Xcel Energy spokeswoman Ethnie Groves had said the workers initially communicated they weren’t injured after the fire broke out. They had rushed uphill to get above a section of the pipe temporarily blocked off to prevent ground water from seeping into it. The fire was burning below that section.

Authorities had started to send crews down from the top of the tunnel to rappel to the workers but decided it would be easier to reach the workers from the bottom.

Nay said going in from the top would have been riskier because rescuers would have had to climb back up 1,000 feet with the workers using their ropes.

Crews planned to work through the night to recover their bodies.

Xcel, which owns the Cabin Creek Station plant, said the workers were employed by a contractor who was performing routine maintenance. Groves said she couldn’t identify the company they worked for.

Tim Taylor, president and CEO of Xcel’s Public Service Company of Colorado, said the company was saddened by the deaths.

"On behalf of Xcel we want to express our deepest sympathies to the families, friends and coworkers of the contractors. We are deeply saddened by their deaths," he said.

The dead workers were among a group of nine workers who were in the tunnel when a machine used to coat the inside of the 4-foot-wide pipe with epoxy caught fire, Groves said.

Four workers below the fire were able to scramble out of the bottom of the tunnel, which goes through a mountain to a small reservoir.

Two of the four workers who scrambled out from the pipe were treated for chemical inhalation. One was airlifted to a hospital, Groves said.

The water tunnel had been shut down for routine maintenance.

The underground channel is called a penstock, which delivers water from a reservoir to turbines that generate electricity. The maintenance was being done by a contractor, but Xcel did not release the contractor’s name.

The hydroelectric plant generates electricity during peak times of demand by releasing water from one reservoir into a lower reservoir, then pumping the water back to the upper reservoir.

It was built from 1964 to 1967 and is located about 2 miles southwest of Georgetown at 10,018 feet above sea level.