Ground Search For Missing In Mudslide Not Likely Until Summer

Three people are still missing after what the Mesa County sheriff is calling the largest mudslide he has ever seen.

Four miles long, 2 miles wide and 250 feet deep, the mudslide came off the Grand Mesa Sunday with "so much force and velocity" that it was able to clear multiple hills before finally stopping.

"The power behind it was remarkable," Sheriff Stan Hilkey told sister station KKCO.

"It's an understatement to call it massive."

The small town of Collbran, 50 miles from Grand Junction, narrowly avoided catastrophe; the path of the mudslide was just 11 miles outside the town. The area, typically dry, received steady rain all day on Sunday, which is believed to have helped trigger the slide.

The mudslide was preceded by a smaller slide on Sunday, which reportedly impacted irrigation water. The three men who are now missing had gone to investigate the first slide when the rain-saturated ridge collapsed.

The slide gained power from existing snow runoff on the mesa, then a deadly mix of water, mud and debris swept off the world's largest flat-topped mountain into the valley below. Witnesses described the noise it made as sounding like a freight train.

No structures were damaged.

The sheriff said everyone is praying that ranchers Clany Nichols, 51, Nichols' 24-year-old son Danny and 46-year-old Wes Hawkins were not in the slide's path.

"Everybody on this mountain is praying for a miracle right now. We hope that they may be stranded somewhere, or in such a way that they avoided it. But right now, they have not been heard from," Hilkey said.

But with very real fears of another mudslide due to how much water is building up at the top of the slide, and several more weeks of peak runoff season, Hilkey says a ground search will probably not occur until "well into summer." The slide area, Hilkey said, isn't stable enough to allow for any kind of safe search.

Until it's safe to get on the slide, Hilkey said they are as much as they can from the air. Teams of people are "scouring" hundreds of aerial images to see if they see anything that needs immediate attention.

"So far, we haven't found anything like that," Hilkey said.