Town Marshal Adam Appelhanz normally makes sure his patrol car is clean and buffed for the annual Memorial Day procession down Main Street of this town of 400.
But this Memorial Day, Appelhanz’s vehicle was coated and spattered with mud, all the way to the windshields, as he followed behind a small cadre of flag-waving, rifle-carrying veterans on their slow walk through town from the Collbran Servicewomen’s Memorial.
Appelhanz, like many folks in this ranching community located high on the Grand Mesa above Grand Junction, had been out on Salt Creek Road helping with a search for three local men missing in a nearby mudslide. That mudslide isn’t spoken of around here without the adjective “massive” attached.
The slide was more than 3 miles long, a half-mile wide and as deep as 250 feet. It dwarfs the mudslide that buried a subdivision and killed 41 people in Oso, Wash., in March.
But this mudslide occurred in a remote, rugged area that is partially on U.S. Forest Service land and partially on private ground. Three gas wells were in the slide’s path, but no structures. No other people were believed to be in an area that is fenced off to the public.
The three men who are missing and feared caught in the slide went out on West Salt Creek Road on Sunday afternoon to check on reports the mountainside was cracking and slipping and that irrigation water to ranches below had been affected.
The missing men were identified as Wes Hawkins, Danny Nichols and his father, Clancy Nichols, all well-known locals whose families homesteaded in the Plateau Valley area of the Mesa where Collbran is located. The Hawkins family owns much of the private land below the slide area on Salt Creek. The Nicholses have ranches down the road near the even smaller community of Molina.
Their large extended families are related through generations by marriage and are well known in the valley.
“This is a very tight-knit area. Everybody’s lives touch everybody else’s lives,” said Susie Nichols, a longtime resident who was helping to keep the Memorial Day observance on track Monday morning.
There was only a scattering of observers this year because so many residents were involved in the search or are related to the missing men. Tables were mostly empty at a community pancake breakfast.
Once the bugling and drumming died out and the small procession was over, a new procession began with friends taking boxes of food from the Twisted Sisters Grub Box restaurant to the rescuers and to the families of the missing men.
The ceremony had taken place under an unbroken blue sky. But Sunday, the area had been pounded with ¾ of an inch of rain that didn’t let up all day.
It is believed that so much moisture saturated the mountainside that it let loose and collapsed into the valley below, snapping off large trees, tumbling massive boulders and moving with such force that it roared over the top of a hill and down the other side.
A few people had called the Mesa County Sheriff’s Office to report hearing the slide or seeing its aftermath, but many residents of Collbran didn’t know what had happened until they heard the sirens on search- and-rescue and law enforcement vehicles speeding through the town Sunday evening.
Collbran may be tight-knit in terms of interpersonal relationships, but connectivity is so poor in the area that it was not easy to spread the word.
“I didn’t know what happened until I got here for the festivities,” said Tilda Evans, a resident of Collbran who worked with Dan Nichols at Olsson Associates engineering firm in Grand Junction.
After the procession, some residents gathered on a bluff on Colorado 330 overlooking the mudslide area where they could look through binoculars and a telescope to see the broken trees that looked like matchsticks and a waterfall formed by runoff rushing from the top of the mountain above the slide area.
That kind of heavy moisture made search efforts very dangerous, said Mesa County Sheriff Stan Hilkey. Ground searchers were only able to probe along the edges of the very bottom of the slide. Even there, the mud and debris is 20 to 30 feet deep.
Hilkey called the slide so large and so deep that “it’s an understatement to say it is massive.”
Hilkey had called the ground searchers, along with two drones and a helicopter, to the area Monday. He said searchers and family members of the missing men still held out some hope that the men could be trapped out in an area with no cellphone coverage. But an aerial search Monday turned up no sign of the pickup truck and all-terrain vehicle the men were on at the site of the slide.
Hilkey also contacted the sheriff in Oso, Wash., to ask for advice on how to search a massive mudslide. The Oso slide was about 1,500 feet wide, 4,400 feet long and 30 to 70 feet deep.
Hilkey said the U.S. Geological Survey and the National Weather Service are sending a hydrologist and a geologist to aid in the search Tuesday.
About 40 people were involved in the search Monday, and many of them personally know the missing men. Clancy Nichols was a volunteer firefighter with the Plateau Valley Fire Protection District, and teams of his fellow firefighters were helping in the search.
From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Amy Hamilton):
Residents here were aghast Monday, buzzing about the enormous mudslide that slid off a northern flank of Grand Mesa, snapping trees and lobbing boulders, and likely burying three locals in its wake.
As Mesa County search and rescue teams prodded into the sea of mud searching for the three victims, residents in the town of about 700 eyed the ridges that surround three sides of the town. Then they got to work, opening their homes, churches and hotels and providing food, a shower or even a place to sit and watch television for a spell to the number of workers and volunteers who arrived on the scene.
“The whole back of Grand Mesa is gone,” Collbran resident Ron Jensen said at the town’s Ace Hardware store. “It’s the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen.”
Jensen, like others in Collbran, traveled up Colorado Highway 330 to Clover Cemetery to peer through binoculars at the slide located about six miles to the south. Authorities pegged current estimates of damage at two to three miles long and up to 250 feet deep in the center, a debris pile that spilled onto private property.
“We’re hoping we can hear some good news, that those people are alive, but I don’t think we are,” said an Ace Hardware employee who didn’t want to be named. “It is just so upsetting. I used to live up Salt Creek Road.”
Residents reported enduring a hail storm Sunday so severe that “it hurt” to be outside. Some estimated an inch of rain fell in a brief but powerful downpour. The area also was smothered in a soggy, wet spring snow in April. The slide was reported at about 6:15 p.m., with a noise that a witness said sounded “like a freight train.” The three missing Collbran residents haven’t been seen since the slide.
Roots run deep in the rural area with pastoral ranches and hillsides that lead up to the sides of the mesa.
Colorado State Patrol trooper Dan Chermok, who was able to get close to the slide area, noted that the debris from the mountainside spilled out onto private ranch land.
“They’re all very closely related,” Chermok said of families who live in the rural, rugged area. “They look out their window up at the mesa.”
Media was staging at the Hawkins ranch on Sunday. Wes Hawkins was one of the men thought to have been checking his irrigation when he got caught in the slide. Clancy Nichols and his son, Dan, also are believed to be missing in the slide. The Hawkins and Nichols families are longtime ranching families on the mesa.
Word spread quickly among residents about the victims, with most people not wanting to talk yet about the missing men in respect for their families.
Ninety-four-year-old Helen Hyde was at Clover Cemetery on Memorial Day, placing flowers on her husband’s grave.
The day before, she traveled to nearby Vega State Park with some friends and noted the saturated ground and some rocks on the road. Motorists with campers were seen heading home Monday, away from Vega State Park.
“There could have been other places where it could have slid,” Hyde said. “If it was going to be at Vega … there was so much traffic there.”