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U.S. 6 reopening

A major, concerted effort refills blast crater and removes debris

Published: Friday, Aug. 12 2005 12:00 a.m. MDT

SPANISH FORK CANYON — At midafternoon Thursday, crews were still battling spot fires caused by a massive explosion along U.S. 6.

The 35-foot deep crater in the highway? Nearly filled.

The road will be open this morning, less than 48 hours after the blast occurred.

"I think it's another example of how Utahns can pull together in a crisis situation and make things happen," said Nile Easton, spokesman for the Utah Department of Transportation. "When we get our back up to the wall, we can do amazing things."

About 2 p.m. on Thursday, Easton was standing about a quarter-mile from the blast site, watching as crews hauled dirt up the canyon, dumped it, then removed debris. UDOT officials were first allowed on the site about 4 p.m. on Wednesday. By 10 p.m. Wednesday, crews had begun the tedious process of hauling dirt and removing debris.

Less than 20 hours later, crews were waiting to begin paving operations. In total, about 4,500 tons of gravel were used to fill the crater. About 350 loads were taken up the canyon.

The fact that fill work was nearly done within 24 hours of the explosion, said Easton, is a testament to quick action by volunteers and a joint effort with contractors and the state. When work is completed this morning, it will be permanent, he said.

"What we did is rally the troops from all around the county," said Easton. "We have trucks and crews from Nephi, Eureka, all over Utah County here."

Seventeen UDOT snowplow trucks were used to haul fill material. Staker Paving and Construction provided other heavy equipment including backhoes, tractors and asphalt.

Tracy Conti, UDOT Region 3 director, said no major road projects were delayed by the shuffling of UDOT equipment and workers to the blast site. Workers — who were offered overtime pay — were taken from small maintenance projects, he said. The snowplow trucks were not being used at other sites.

As for the cost of repairs, contingency money in UDOT's maintenance budget will be used to pay the contractor. Efforts are being made to seek reimbursement for costs through insurance.

"My supervisors are very, very good at economically doing some amazing things," said Conti. "They love it when they get a situation like this — a real project where there is a lot to do in a short amount of time."

One of the primary challenges UDOT faced was damage to the sandstone wall on the north side of the road. The blast jarred several large boulders loose, so a track-hoe was used to knock them loose, then jackhammers to break them up.

At the work site, crews and machinery were working in a tight area, something that made the job difficult, said Easton. Officials were also on-site from the U.S. Forest Service, railroad and fiber-optic companies.

CentraCom, an independent telephone company, had to replace 416 feet of copper wire and 600 feet of fiber-optic cable that serve the residents of Scofield.

Union Pacific crews had one of the two tracks damaged in the explosion reopened Wednesday evening. The westbound track, which was more heavily damaged, was expected to be completed Thursday evening.

However, the crews with arguably the most difficult job in the wake of the explosion were the firefighters from the U.S. Forest Service.

Debris from the truck showered along the mountainside around the blast area over a radius of as much as 200 yards. Chris Church, the incident commander for the Forest Service, said crews were dealing with about 200 different hot spots. Fortunately, he said, the fires were not spreading.

"Because of all the snow we had last winter, most of the fuels that are higher on the mountain, like the sage and the oak, have a high moisture content," Church said.

The fires spread so slowly, in fact, that the Forest Service didn't put crews on the scene until Thursday morning, citing the potential danger of undetonated explosives. A helicopter began battling the blazes Wednesday night, and 30 firefighters and two engines arrived on the scene Thursday morning.

Church said the fires would be contained by this afternoon at the latest.

The incident remains under investigation by police.

"Speed was definitely a factor," Utah Highway Patrol Lt. Ken Peay said. "We know how fast he was going, but we're not ready to release that at this time."

Peay said UHP will be working with the Utah County Attorney's Office to screen possible charges against Travis Stewart, the truck's driver.

The findings of UHP's investigation will be turned over the County Attorney today, and UHP will wait to see what charges, if any, are filed before issuing any citations.

"We don't want to issue anything right now," Peay said. "You don't ever file a lesser charge that's part of a larger charge."


E-mail: nwarburton@desnews.com; jtwitchell@desnews.com

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