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CNN BREAKING NEWS

Avalanche In Colorado Closes I-40

Aired January 6, 2007 - 14:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: Hello. I'm Fredricka Whitfield in Atlanta with more on this break story out of Colorado, where highway officials are reporting that a massive avalanche has occurred about 60 miles west of Denver.

What's frightening here is this avalanche has impacted a highway, US 40, which is also called the Berthoud Pass. And apparently, this avalanche has also smothered a number of vehicles.

Six people, at least six people have reportedly been rescued. One person is reportedly injured. And now officials are looking for other potential survivors. This Berthoud Pass is the main route to get to the Winter Park ski resort there outside of Denver.

On the phone with us now, Colorado State Patrol Eric Wynn.

And if you could, Mr. Wynn, just update me. Is that information still correct that at least six people were rescued and you are now looking for other survivors?

ERIC WYNN, COLORADO STATE PATROL: That is correct. The avalanche occurred shortly after 10:30 this morning.

They have recovered two vehicles with six occupants, one of which was transported to an area hospital with injuries. The injuries are unknown at this time. They're going to continue the rescue effort up there to make sure that there is no other vehicles that are involved. And if there is, to get those vehicles or occupants out there as quick as we can.

WHITFIELD: Now, obviously, we all know that you've had a number of snowstorms just within the past couple of weeks. So in times like this, where there are a lot of warnings to a lot of travelers on these highways that the potential was great for avalanches.

WYNN: Well, at this time I don't know how unsteady any of the mountain areas are as far as their accumulation with the snowfall. Generally, they do put out avalanche warnings in some of the mountain areas when they are aware of them, depending on the potential of an avalanche occurring, and also on the amount of snow they have up. It is correct that the last three weeks in a row we have had a significant number of inches of snowfall in the Denver metropolitan area, along throughout the state.

WHITFIELD: So, CDOT is reporting that this avalanche was about 100 feet wide and about 15 feet deep, and that reportedly it not only buried vehicles, but pushed some vehicles off the road.

Is that correct?

WYNN: You know, as far as -- I know there were -- the two vehicles that we're talking about, where they did get the six occupants. And as far as how many other vehicles are involved, it's unknown at this time.

You know, when you do have your avalanches, especially dealing with this magnitude of an avalanche, not only does the snow come down, but all the debris that's -- that's in the way of that snow. So if you have rocks and tress, that also accompanies that snow coming down.

WHITFIELD: Yes. So if we're talking about at least the snow being at least 15 feet deep on top of all that debris that you speak of, trying to locate any other vehicles that may indeed have been pushed off the roadway, I mean that's a colossal task.

How do you do that?

WYNN: It is. You're going to have to have -- the transportation department has their equipment up as far as front-end loaders and stuff like that, where they're going to actually have to remove some of the snow. And, you know, they're just working their way in there to make sure that there is no other vehicles or any other people involved in this.

WHITFIELD: So is that highway blocked off or closed right now while you carry out these searches and obviously try to remove a lot of this snow that has covered the roadway?

WYNN: It is. They expect the highway, US 40, to remain closed for the rest of the day. And whatever time it takes to get it cleared up and make sure that the snow is stable up there.

WHITFIELD: Now, what about assistance from any other agencies or highway rescue groups? Anything like that in the area that you'll be relying upon?

WYNN: At this time, I don't know what other agencies are involved. I know we do have -- in the sate we have Alpine Search and Rescue, who generally our dispatched when we're dealing with avalanches and back country skiers, and stuff like that. They're generally the rescue teams that go out there, along with whatever county assistance we have from whatever agency in the county.

WHITFIELD: OK.

And for the at least one injured and the six people who have been rescued, have you needed to medevac that one injured person out of the area? How do you, you know, extricate these people from this area?

WYNN: Well at this time, it's my understanding that the one person that was injured was transported to the area hospital by ground ambulance.

WHITFIELD: OK.

Colorado State Patrol Eric Wynn, thanks so much for the information.

And now with the Department of Transportation out of Colorado, Stacey Stegman on the line with us now.

So, Ms. Stegman, perhaps you can update me on that. I was asking about this information that you all are quoted as providing, which is about 100 feet wide of this avalanche and 15 feet deep.

Can you update me on exactly what you're dealing with here?

STACEY STEGMAN, COLORADO DEPT. OF TRANSPORTATION: Hi. We -- this is a tremendous amount of snow to come down on the mountainside for us. We don't typically see these types of avalanches. So it's going to take quite some time.

We're still probing to make sure that there aren't others, other vehicles, other people trapped in the avalanche. And once we're sure about that, then we have to begin the process of removing them.

WHITFIELD: So how do you do that? I mean, it's difficult to visualize for anybody to figure out how do you, you know, traverse this snow, which is at least 15 feet deep, along with all the debris, which the patrolman was just explaining to us often happens.

STEGMAN: Well, I think, you know, the rescue crews that are involved in this type of rescue do this all the time. I mean, they have equipment and the expertise to regularly look for this because they get a lot of back country avalanches as well.

For us, I mean, this is -- this is a very large avalanche. Usually we get two to three feet that come down at this location. So it's going to take some time and a lot of work and equipment to really figure out how to get through this.

WHITFIELD: So talk to me, Ms. Stegman, then, about the traffic on US 40 at the time of 10:00 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. Is it logical to think that a number of the skiers or folks who were trying to get to Winter Park and other resorts may have already been on the road and off the road pretty early in the morning, that perhaps at around 10:00 or 10:30 you don't have as many people as, say, 7:00 a.m., or 6:00 a.m., when folks want to get on those ski lifts right away?

STEGMAN: Exactly. And that's one of the things we are very thankful for at this moment, because if it would have happened just a couple of hours earlier, this could have been a very different situation. But as it stands now, we believe only two cars were involved from witness accounts. We're hoping that there weren't any others, because this road definitely sees the peak of its traffic in the morning and the evening.

WHITFIELD: And so, Ms. Stegman, we're looking at on our screen a few different views, from a tower cam, to also some CDOT highway shots. This US 40, at about the area where this avalanche took place, would there be any cameras positioned there to give you an idea of what the traffic was just prior to the avalanche? Anything like that already on tape for you that you'll be able to review?

STEGMAN: Yes, we don't record anything from our cameras. So there wouldn't be anything that would show it at that time, no.

WHITFIELD: OK.

So, if you're telling me the kind of avalanche or snow impact that you usually see in this area, the Berthoud Pass, there on US 40, is two to three feet, that means you don't have the kind of equipment to try to deal with 15 feet or more of avalanche snow.

So what kind of machinery, apparatus, what kind of help are you going to be able to bring into that area to look for any other potential vehicles buried?

STEGMAN: We do have loaders and blowers and things that we'll definitely be able to clear the snow from the roadway. But when I said that we typically see two to three feet, we maintain many of these avalanches pads, and we set these avalanches off in a very controlled fashion. And so we -- in fact, we just did this with a helicopter last Tuesday.

So that's why it's pretty surprising to see this amount of snow, because we did get a good slide on Tuesday already when we did. I think this is just an indications of the extreme amount of snow that we've had lately in Colorado.

WHITFIELD: And because you've had so much snow lately within the past couple of weeks or so, are there any notices that are up for vehicular traffic to be aware of certain, you know, weather changes or certain hours of the day traveling where the chances of avalanche is maybe heightened?

STEGMAN: Well, I think the concern is more for back country avalanches than the paths that actually reach highways because they are so controlled, typically. And that's why this is a little bit uncommon for us to see this extreme.

I mean, we have avalanches that, because we control these, they're just not as large as this one. I mean, this one has obviously built up over time. And for our crews to be commenting that it's so unusual and massive, this has taken everyone by surprise.

WHITFIELD: Stacey Stegman of CDOT, thanks so much.

We want to bring in our Bonnie Schneider.

You've been reporting on the weather that folks in Colorado, particularly around the Denver area, have been experiencing in the past couple of weeks. But this one, just as we heard from Ms. Stegman, is pretty alarming, to have an avalanche of this size on this pass.

BONNIE SCHNEIDER, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Yes. That's right, Fredricka.

(WEATHER REPORT)

WHITFIELD: All right. Bonnie Schneider, thanks so much. We'll be checking back with you.

Again, if you're just now joining us, just west of Denver, the big concern right now is a very sizable avalanche which has buried vehicles on US 40, which is just about 60 miles west of Denver. The location of this avalanche at Berthoud Pass.

And it's significant, because a number of vehicles were buried. But the good news, according to highway officials, is that at least six people were actually rescued, one person injured. But, because they're dealing with at least 15 feet of snow and debris piled up on that part of the pass, now they are conducting searches to make sure that they can get to anyone else who may potentially have been impacted by this avalanche.

We'll have more on this story in a moment.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WHITFIELD: Hello again. I'm Fredricka Whitfield in Atlanta. We're watching a story in Colorado just outside Denver. A massive avalanche has occurred. What's unusual here is that this avalanche has directly impacted U.S. 40 which is a highway which is frequented by a number of people, at least in this particular area, who are on their way to winter park ski resort.

The avalanche took place at about -- between 10:00 and 10:30 Colorado time. And the highway authorities tell us what is encouraging about that time frame is that a number of people were probably already crowding the roads earlier.

But unfortunately this avalanche did impact at least two vehicles and six people were rescued from their vehicles being buried from this snow, snow believed to be at least 15 feet deep along with a lot of debris that has impacted this U.S. 40 highway just outside of Denver.

Our Bonnie Schneider is watching the weather conditions because one big concern right now is the continuing snow advisory where high winds are impacting the situation there, perhaps even helping to trigger this avalanche, Bonnie?

SCHNEIDER: Really, it's tough to say what triggered it. But the winds that are happening right now certainly not helping the situation. Because the winds are going to be fierce straight through Sunday.

We have a blowing snow advisory for a good portion of Colorado, really through the foothills the front range. And you can see this actually extends into Sunday. With good reason. Some of the sustained winds we're getting now are west at 25 miles per hour. But gusts could climb as high as 60 miles per hour over the next 24 hours. So blowing snow is in the forecast today, tonight, tomorrow. Even though we're getting partly cloudy conditions in the Denver area right now, once you start driving further along i-70 to the west, that's where we're seeing the winds pick up at the higher elevations. So that will be the concern.

As far as new snow falling, looking at the radar picture right now, it is clear from Aspen to Denver northward towards Boulder and southward toward Colorado Springs.

We did have snow, though, that fell earlier in the week. Another batch of snow. Several inches of snow fell in the Denver area. Temperatures have been very, very cold as a result. And that's been a problem, too, because we haven't seen as much snow melt as we would like to see.

In fact, taking a look right now, it's 36 degrees in the Denver area. But once again, you start heading at those higher elevations, the temperatures do drop. And we're reporting temperatures of 28 degrees in Grand Junction and to the south 44 in Colorado Springs. But really much of the day will be spent around the freezing mark.

That sunshine out there in the Denver area helping matters. But really the concern is the winds. The high wind watch and the blowing snow advisory will continue straight into Sunday with good reason, because these winds have been quite fierce across the plains -- Fredricka.

WHITFIELD: And Bonnie, you have to wonder whether these winds are going to impact the, you know, impending rescue efforts as well. Because we heard from the Colorado Department of Transportation representative that they're going to be using loaders and even blowers to help move some of this snow across this berthed (ph) pass, because they're not even sure if there might be other vehicles that may be buried by this snow.

SCHNEIDER: Right. And another thing to note is the amount of snow that this area has seen just over the past three weeks. We had 2 feet of snow a couple weeks ago. Compounded with another 8 inches of the following tne days later. And then recently about three to four inches ranging about six to seven depending where you are into the metro Denver area and certainly back up towards the foothills.

That's a lot of snow in a short amount of time. And the weight of that is heavy because of the snow melt that was happening during the week. We had a couple of days where highs got into the 40s. So there was some snow melt. Low temperatures in the evening dropped into the 20s. So then that refroze. So we really didn't see a dramatic snow melt. So all that heaviness is still there.

WHITFIELD: And that explains in part, too, why CDOT is saying that at that berthoud (ph) pass when there are avalanches, which do occur, they're usually dealing with 2 to 3 feet of snow. A lot easier to move than 15 plus.

SCHNEIDER: That's true. And, remember, the winds are blowing about the snow drifts that are in place. So you may have an area that has 2 feet of snow with a strong gust of wind 60 miles per hour, that could grow to 3, 4, and 5 feet. And we've seen that across Colorado with the impact of these storms over the past couple of weeks.

So with the new snow that fell yesterday and the day before that, only compacted matters worse. And, of course, we still have the high winds that will go through the weekend.

WHITFIELD: OK. And so, again with the high wind watch through Sunday, reiterate again whether folks need to be concerned about snowfall in addition to this high wind advisory.

SCHNEIDER: Snowfall is not in the forecast. But what is in the forecast specifically for this area just to the west of Denver is blowing snow. So it may look like it's snowing, because the snow is just blowing about.

And strong winds are dangerous because they could cause trees to come down as well and power outages. So that's why usually high wind watches are posted as far in advance as they can be as well.

WHITFIELD: All right. Bonnie Schneider, thanks so much. We'll check back with you.

So again, if you're just now joining us, just about 60 miles west of Denver, the concern is snow as a result of an avalanche on Highway 40.

And it's a road frequented by people who are going to Winter Park Ski Resort. It happened between 10:00 and 10:30 a.m. local time -- Denver time. At least two vehicles were buried by this snow, about 15 feet of snow on this pass. And at least six people were rescued, one person injured.

CDOT continues to try to move some of this snow from Highway 40. but highway 40 is going to be closed all day, because they want to see if there are any other vehicles buried by this snow.

They're bringing in blowers as well as loaders to try to move some of this snow and get to any people who may potentially be buried. But right now, they only know of the six who have been rescued.

We'll have more on this story right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WHITFIELD: More now on this breaking story outside Denver. On Highway 40, a massive avalanche pushing snow 100 feet wide and 15 feet deep on the highway burying at least two vehicles. Rescuers have gotten to at least seven people, rescued them successfully. One person was taken to an area hospital.

Colorado Department of Transportation is now bringing in loaders and blowers in the search for any other vehicles that may have been pushed by this snow. Our Bonnie Schneider is in the weather center here in Atlanta and keeping a close watch on the weather. Snow not necessarily -- snowfall not necessarily a factor but blowing snow, the winds are fierce there, Bonnie.

SCHNEIDER: They certainly are. And winter driving conditions are going to be a big concern as we're looking at icy and snow packed roads. The risk of blowing snow is really the concern.

I'm reading an advisory of blowing snow from the National Weather Service in Devner for this area, specifically for the foothills of the front range, this afternoon and this evening.

So we're looking at the snow advisories for blowing snow, not falling snow, but blowing snow until 6:00 a.m. Mountain Standard Time on Sunday.

So the strong winds and the light snow really will be blowing about with winds as strong as 70 miles per hour.

Now we could see some new snow accumulate very lightly in the next 48 hours, but really just a couple of inches. I think the biggest concern will be the winds. There is also a high wind watch for the area.

And when you look at our current winds, even sustained winds right now are very strong: out of the west at 25 miles per hour. Those are fierce winds because gusts can get up to 70 miles per hour. That's near hurricane-force strength. So this is going to be a serious situation for the front range foothills straight until tomorrow with these winds blowing about.

And you have to remember also that temperatures are also quite cold as we take a look at current numbers in the Denver area. We have 36 degrees. But once you start heading west, temperatures drop dramatically, especially in the higher elevations. So that's going to make for some bitter conditions out there the longer the day goes on, because we're going to be seeing deteriorating visibility and uncomfortable conditions with the blowing snow. The wind-chill factor makes it feel much more colder as well, Fred.

WHITFIELD: All right. We'll keep checking with you, Bonnie.

And as we get more information on this avalanche taking place outside of Denver, we'll be able to bring that to you throughout the afternoon. Right now we want to take you to a special Open House: Mortgage Meltdown.

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