Crews search for 3 people in Colorado mudslide

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COLLBRAN, Colo. —Crews are searching the bottom edge of a massive mudslide in western Colorado for three men who went missing after checking on damage from an initial slide.

The men haven't been heard from since a half-mile wide piece of ridge, saturated by heavy rain, collapsed Sunday and sent mud sliding for 3 miles.

Sheriff Stan Hilkey said the search has been hampered because only the lower third of the slide is stable. At the edges there, the mud is 20 to 30 feet deep. It's believed to be several hundred feet deep in some places.

Hilkey says everyone is praying for a miracle but said no signs of the men or their truck have been found.

He has consulted with the sheriff who responded to March's mudslide in Washington state for advice on how to handle the search.

Authorities said no structures or major roads were affected by the large mudslide. It hit Sunday near the town of Collbran, about 40 miles east of Grand Junction and near the edge of Grand Mesa, one of the world's largest flat topped mountains. Deputies estimate that the entire ridge had been moving for most of Sunday before someone called to report the slide at 6:15 p.m., describing it as sounding like a freight train.

"This slide is unbelievably big," said Mesa County Lt. Phil Stratton said.

Authorities said the unidentified men were possibly caught in the slide but haven't released any other details.

Bill Clark, a cousin of one of the missing men, said the three went to check for problems in the area Sunday after a rancher reported that his irrigation ditch had stopped flowing. Clark visited the canyon where the slide struck and said it was filled with about 700 feet of mud. He said it struck with so much force that some also spilled over into the neighboring draw too.

"I've never seen so much earth move like that in my life," he said.

From a distance of about 10 miles, the slide looked like a funnel, running from a ridgeline at or next to the flat-topped Grand Mesa and narrowing into a culvert below. It cut a giant channel through trees. The creek that once gradually flowed down the ridge now spurted down like a waterfall. Roads in the area, where some cattle grazed, were muddy from rain.

Collbran resident Lloyd Power was on the side of a road Monday, gazing out at the slide.

"How in the devil could this happen?" Power said.

He said residents were praying for the missing. "That's all we can do," Power said.

A sheriff's helicopter was surveying the slide area Monday. Authorities erected a roadblock to keep onlookers from the slide area outside Collbran, a ranching town of about 700 people that also serves as a gateway to outdoor recreation like hiking, fishing and hunting. The slide is near Salt Creek Road and Vega Reservoir, which is in a state park.

The area is part of the Piceance Basin, one of Colorado's largest natural gas producing areas. Mud came up to the edge of three wells owned by the Occidental Petroleum Corp. and workers manually shut down the wells and connecting pipelines Sunday in case the slide continued to spread, said David Ludlam, executive director of the West Slope Colorado Oil & Gas Association, a trade group. No spills have been reported. Other operators are also monitoring wells, he said.

Authorities say heavy rains that fell over the weekend contributed to the slide but it's not clear how much rain fell where the slide occurred. Nearby rain gauges showed that thunderstorms dropped between 0.7 and 1.2 inches of rain over the weekend but the closest gauge is 9 miles away. National Weather Service meteorologist Tom Renwick said the tally isn't a very dramatic amount but he said it's possible that a thunderstorm dumped even more rain over the slide area.

The slide occurred about two months after a massive mudslide hit the Washington community of Oso on March 22, killing 43 people.