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Shell blast injures 2 avalanche control workers

Published: Monday, March 31, 2014 12:53 p.m. CDT

GEORGETOWN, Colo. — Two Colorado Department of Transportation workers were injured, one seriously, after an avalanche shell exploded Monday while they were trying to fire a round up a steep hillside to clear steep chasms filled with snow and ice near Interstate 70.

The two men who were injured were standing behind a barricade in the area about 50 miles west of Denver when the shell detonated prematurely, injuring them above the waist, department spokesman Tony DeVito said. The nature of their injuries was not available. A third worker at the scene was not hurt.

"We are taking this situation very seriously and will be looking into how to improve the safety of our crew members during avalanche reduction practices," DeVito said in a statement. "The safety of our crews and the traveling public are our top priority and we ask you keep these gentlemen in your thoughts today."

"We are continuing to look at how we handled it," DeVito said at a news conference.

Colorado Avalanche Information Center said 9 inches of snow fell overnight on Loveland Pass, and the avalanche danger was rated as considerable there.

The shells are fired using launchers with compressed gas up mountainsides to set off controlled avalanches to protect drivers and backcountry skiers. The department, working with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center that issues daily forecasts of avalanche dangers, fires thousands of rounds a year, and there have been no serious injuries to ground workers reported in decades.

The transportation department regularly monitors 278 of the 522 known avalanche paths in Colorado. The device that misfired has been used for the past eight years and has fired over 800 rounds this avalanche season.

DeVito said the highway through Loveland Basin is closed and the use of the shells has been suspended indefinitely while the accident is investigated. He said the department will use other means to set off controlled landslides until the cause of the blast is determined. Other options available include launchers that use other shells and devices that can be detonated remotely.

Officials said the work crews had already fired more than a dozen rounds on Monday when the shell misfired.

The two workers were taken to St. Anthony Hospital, where hospital officials said their conditions were not available.

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