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A view of the Comanche 3 plant
The Comanche 3 generating unit at Xcel Energy's Comanche power plant in Pueblo is shown in this March 1, 2021 photo. (Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Emergency crews found the bodies of two workers hours after they became trapped under 80 feet of coal at the Comanche 3 power plant south of Pueblo, officials said Thursday.

The bodies of the victims, who were subcontractors for Xcel Energy, were found at about 3 p.m. after the coal pile collapsed earlier Thursday, Pueblo Fire Department spokesman Erik Duran said. One man was in his 20s and the other in his 30s, Duran said.

When rescuers located the men, they determined that resuscitation efforts would not be helpful and switched their rescue work to a recovery mission, Duran said. Their bodies were found buried 60 feet deep in the coal pile, he said.

The men have not yet been publicly identified.

First responders with the fire department were called about 8:40 a.m. and arrived at the coal plant within 10 minutes.

Emergency flight helicopters were on scene, he said. Xcel Energy employees and contractors on site are also assisted in the rescue efforts, he said. 

An investigation into the events leading up to the people being trapped is ongoing, Duran said.

The coal pile is located south of the plant near an outdoor “feeder pile,” where conveyor belts transport the coal before it is dumped into the burner, Duran said. 

Contractors and rescue crews used shovels and equipment to move the material in the pile, which is made up of fist-size lumps of coal and coal dust, he said. 

“A major concern for us is for all of the rescue workers that are on the pile and the equipment that is on the pile and the instability of the material that we’re on and excavating,” Duran said earlier in the day. “So we have to do it diligently and carefully so that nobody else falls victim.” 

Xcel Energy is working with the employees of Savage Services, the long-term contractor that maintains the coal yard, and Pueblo County Sheriff’s Department to understand what happened, Xcel spokeswoman Lacey Nygard said in an email.

Savage manages all of the onsite operations, including hiring, training, maintaining staff and equipment and coal operations at Comanche plant yard, she said.

“Our thoughts and prayers are with the employees of Savage who were involved in an incident at the coal facilities at the Comanche plant today and their families,” Nygard said.

Jeff Hymas, a spokesman for Savage Services, said the news that two workers died at the coal yard was devastating.

“This is tragic for the families, our team, our customer, and the Pueblo community,” he wrote in an email. “Our hearts and prayers go out to the families who are grieving the loss of their loved ones, and we are working to provide support for the families and our team members at the site.”

Hymas wrote that Savage appreciates the work of the emergency responders who worked to recover the men and said the company is “working with local and federal officials and Xcel Energy to investigate the cause of the accident.”

Comanche 3, just south of Pueblo, is the largest coal-fired unit in Colorado. Xcel has agreed to close it by 2031. The $1 billion unit went online in 2010, and it has had a checkered history of breakdown and outages.

The last high-profile fatalities at an Xcel Energy facility in Colorado occurred in 2007, when five subcontractors applying an epoxy coating to a pipe at the Cabin Creek hydroelectric plant near Georgetown died in a fire. 

Xcel Energy and subsidiary Public Service Company of Colorado were acquitted of criminal charges related to their deaths. 

In 2019, a subcontractor was electrocuted and died as he worked to relocate equipment just west of the Quebec Street exit from Interstate 70, as part of the Central 70 Project.

Olivia Prentzel is a general assignment writer based in Colorado Springs for The Colorado Sun, covering breaking news, wildfires and all things interesting impacting Coloradans. Before joining The Sun, Olivia covered criminal justice for The Colorado Springs Gazette. She’s also worked at newspapers in New Orleans and New Jersey, where she grew up. After graduating college, she lived in a tiny, rural town in southern Madagascar for three years as a Peace Corps volunteer. When not writing, Olivia enjoys backpacking and climbing Colorado’s tallest peaks.