Hoping to head off "headhunters," four engineers opened hearings Wednesday on the Quail Creek Diversion Dam failure - the New Year's Eve calamity that flooded homes and killed livestock.

Bob Morgan, the state engineer and director of the division of water rights, said the panelists were brought in ". . . because of their expertise, and frankly, because there's some headhunting going on in this state that we'd like to avoid."Let me stress," he said, "that this panel is not going to be placing any blame. We're looking for a cause, and if blame is placed, it will be done through a judicial proceeding."

He gave a four-part charge to the panel, which has three out-of-state members, and said he hopes at least two of the four issues will be determined by March 1. (See shadow box.)

"We want to find out if the main dam in its present state is safe, or are additional studies, remedial action or additional monitoring needed."

Morgan said in addition to studying the breach, the engineers will look at the main dam, which currently holds 11,000 to 12,000 acre feet of water.

"We want you to do this for two reasons," Morgan told the panelists. "First, it will put at ease any decisions we have made as to the safety of the existing dam, and that also you will help to ease the concerns of the public."

Morgan said one of the most important issues the panel will discuss is the safety of the site.

"The public is wandering around looking at the site and we think there is some danger going into those vertical slopes," Morgan said. "The slopes are very unstable."

He said that after the panel has carefully examined the area, some modifications will be made to protect the public.

Morgan said officials had planned to close the hearings to the press and public. He said that although subsequent sessions of the hearings will be open to the press, the deliberation phase will be closed.

"Those deliberation sessions are private," Morgan told the panel, "and we have the Supreme Court to back us up."

He urged the press to "be quiet and not interrupt the committee at work." He said the press will have opportunities for questions.

After a short break, panelists began scrutinizing maps, plans and other relevant information.

The length of the investigation is still undetermined. Panelists were careful not to lock themselves into a rigid time frame.

Panel leader Robert James, a private consultant and engineer from Texas, summed up the feelings of the others: "I don't think I'm so independent that I should bog down the proceedings," he said, "but I'm a prudent engineer and I wouldn't want to put my reputation on the line and be hasty about this."

The other panelists are Bruce Barrett, an engineer with the Bureau of Reclamation in Provo; Richard Catanach, an independent consultant from Santa Fe, N.M.; and Larry Von Toun, an engineer with the Bureau of Reclamation in Denver.