- Associated Press - Monday, March 31, 2014

GEORGETOWN, Colo. (AP) - Two state workers were injured, one seriously, after an avalanche shell exploded Monday while they were trying to fire a round up a steep hillside to clear steep chasms filled with snow and ice near Interstate 70.

They were standing behind a barricade in the area about 50 miles west of Denver when the shell detonated prematurely, injuring the men above the waist, department spokesman Tony DeVito said. The nature of their injuries was not available, but DeVito said one was in serious condition and the other in fair condition.

One man worked for the Colorado Department of Transportation and the other for the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. A third worker at the scene was not hurt.

Their names have not been released, and DeVito said their families asked for privacy.

“We are continuing to look at how we handled it,” DeVito said at a news conference about the avalanche operation.

Earlier, in a written statement, DeVito said the department will look at ways to improve crew safety.

The avalanche center, a state agency that issues daily forecasts of avalanche danger, said 9 inches of snow fell overnight on Loveland Pass, and the avalanche danger was rated as considerable there.

The shells are fired using launchers with compressed gas up mountainsides to set off controlled avalanches to protect drivers and backcountry skiers. The department, working with the avalanche center, fires thousands of rounds a year, and there have been no serious injuries to ground workers reported in decades.

The transportation department regularly monitors 278 of the 522 known avalanche paths in Colorado. The device that misfired has been used for the past eight years and has fired over 800 rounds this avalanche season.

DeVito said the highway through Loveland Basin is closed and the use of the shells has been suspended indefinitely while the accident is investigated. He said the department will use other means to set off controlled landslides until the cause of the blast is determined. Other options available include launchers that use other shells and devices that can be detonated remotely.

Officials said the work crews had already fired more than a dozen rounds on Monday when the shell misfired.

The two workers were taken to St. Anthony Hospital, where hospital officials said their conditions were not available.