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2 avalanche mitigation workers hurt after shell explodes in device

LOVELAND PASS, Colo. — Two workers doing avalanche mitigation work in the Seven Sisters Area on Loveland Pass were injured Monday morning when a round exploded inside the chamber of one of the devices, the Colorado Department of Transportation said.The unidentified men, in their late 30s to early 40s, were taken to St. Anthony Hospital in Lakewood. The workers, who are with CDOT and the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, were conscious and talking on their way by ground to the hospital. A third person who was part of the mitigation team was not injured.

CDOT Region 1 Director Tony DeVito said the CDOT employee, who has been with the department for more than 20 years and is from the Dillon area, is in serious condition, while the CAIC worker, who works as a forecaster during such work, is in fair condition. Family members were allowed to visit with them.

“It’s one of the worst calls you can get,” DeVito said. “It’s surreal. It’s not a phone call you want to receive on the way into work on a Monday morning.”

A part of Loveland Ski Area and all of Loveland Pass were closed as the Clear Creek County Sheriff’s Department investigated the incident.

The team was using a device called the Avalauncher to set off pre-planned avalanches in the area as more snow built up in the area. DeVito said CDOT has used the device for 30 years, firing about 1,000 shells a year, and has never had an issue with it, he said.

The crew was nearing the end of its work when on the 18th shot the Avalauncher malfunctioned and the explosive device went off in the chamber. That particular Avalanucher has been in use for eight years and has fired more than 800 rounds this avalanche season, CDOT said.

DeVito said the third person on the team, who has been with CDOT for more than 30 years, was “shaken up” and “very concerned.”

“He’s never seen anything like this,” DeVito said.

Using compressed gas, the mitigation team loads an explosive into the Avalauncher, which sits on the back of a 1-ton pickup. When it’s launched, the trigger detonates on impact. The use of all Avalaunchers has been suspended by CDOT while the incident is being investigated.

“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.

DeVito said the team followed all safety procedures that are in place. The three-man team loads the explosive into the device, then moves about 20-30 feet away and block themselves with the vehicle in an “L” shape.

“All procedure was followed,” said DeVito, who added mitigation crews go through extensive training and safety protocol every year.

The Seven Sisters Area is on the east side of Loveland Pass. It’s above the first big turn going up the pass on U.S. 6, just past the entrance for Loveland Ski Area. There are seven well-worn avalanche chutes in the area.