GEORGETOWN, Colo. (AP) – Five workers trapped at least 1,500 feet underground survived an initial chemical fire at a hydroelectric plant, but died before emergency workers could rescue them.

Investigators were trying to determine how they died, and the county coroner’s office was working Wednesday to identify the workers and remove their bodies.

Crews who entered from the bottom of the sloping tunnel to put out the fire discovered the bodies late Tuesday, Clear Creek County undersheriff Stu Nay said.

They were among a group of nine contract maintenance workers in the tunnel when a machine used to coat the inside of the 12-foot-wide pipe with epoxy caught fire, Xcel Energy spokeswoman Ethnie Groves said.

Exactly what burned is still under investigation, Xcel spokesman Mark Stutz said Wednesday. The contractors worked for RPI Coating of Santa Fe Springs, Calif.

“We’re devastated over the loss,” RPI spokesman Marc Dyer said. “They were very experienced guys. They were some of our best.”

Dyer said the company was still contacting family members and did not release names of the workers.

Four workers below the fire were able to scramble out of the bottom of the 4,000-foot-long tunnel. All four were treated and released Tuesday, St. Anthony Hospital spokeswoman Bev Lilly said. She did not know the extent of their injuries or their identities.

The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration was at the scene, and the U.S. Chemical Safety Board was sending an investigator. Several state agencies began their own investigations Wednesday.

Officials initially expressed hope that the trapped workers could be saved. Groves first reported that authorities had communicated with the five by radio about 45 minutes after the fire broke out, and that the men said they were unhurt.

The underground tunnel delivers water from a reservoir to turbines that generate electricity and empties into a second, smaller reservoir. The plant, technically called a pumped storage facility, is located high in the Rocky Mountains.

Xcel said the tunnel initially rises 1,500 feet at a gentle sloping angle, then another 1,500 feet at a 15-degree angle.

The pipe then rises 1,000 feet at a 55-degree angle before running vertical for its final 50 feet.

The smoldering fire broke out about halfway into the pipe.

The five workers were trapped at the junction of the 15-degree pipe and the 55-degree pipe, Xcel said.

Personnel from at least a dozen agencies, including a mine rescue crew and an Alpine rescue team, rushed to the site 2 miles outside Georgetown, a former mining town with mountain views, Victorian buildings and bighorn sheep that attract tourists.

Officials lowered breathing masks and piped in oxygen to the men, who had scrambled up the tunnel and sought shelter behind a temporary valve used to prevent water from seeping into the pipe, said sheriff’s Maj. Rick Albers.

The mine crew entered the bottom of the tunnel to extinguish the fire. At the top of the tunnel, rescuers waited to rappel their way down to reach the workers but authorities later said they decided it would be safer to reach the workers from the bottom.

The hydroelectric plant generates electricity by releasing water from the top reservoir into the lower reservoir, then pumping the water back to the upper reservoir. It was completed in 1967.


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