- Associated Press - Saturday, June 21, 2014

GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. (AP) - Matt Nichols’ normally sparkly eyes are shrouded behind a haze of grief as he clutches a stack of sympathy cards, the latest in the dozens that arrive daily at his grandmother’s home.

Some family and friends address the cards simply to Matt on KE Road in Molina, but the cards show up regardless. By now everyone, including a cousin who works to deliver the mail, knows how the 20-year-old lost the two favorite men in his life, his father, Clancy, and his only brother, Danny.

Day in and day out, Plateau Valley residents rise with the sun, raise children, raise livestock, share dinner and tuck into bed at night in the shadow of Grand Mesa, the world’s largest flattop mountain.

But the slopes seemed to turn against them when a nearly 3-mile-long landslide consumed three loved and respected men, the Nichols men and the beloved father of five children, Wes Hawkins, as they went to check on an irrigation problem and its possible impact to a road.

While the events of the May 25 landslide are unfair to say the least - something that has been dubbed a once-in-10,000-years event - Matt Nichols can still crack a smile and recall the good times, the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel reported (https://tinyurl.com/lc7838n).

“They were up there helping out and were chosen to go,” Nichols said, wiping away some tears, surrounded by family at his grandmother’s home, the homestead where his dad grew up.

“Dad’s probably embarrassed by it,” Matt surmised, describing his father as always helping someone solve a problem, but not one to step into the limelight.

“Danny always wanted to go out with a bang,” Matt smiled.

So it’s little surprise that Matt Nichols would want what his brother would have wanted.

Danny Nichols, 24, a geologist with Olsson Associates in Grand Junction, likely went with their father that fateful day, interested in a report of a smaller landslide uphill from where the ground would later give way to a towering wall of mud and debris.

In his brother’s honor, the landslide could be a learning experience for students, just like the way Danny traveled on field trips and earned a geology degree at the University of Wyoming in Laramie.

Mesa County officials have offered to help facilitate that dream, with plans to approach professors at both Colorado Mesa University and the Wyoming university to sponsor programs related to studying the slide.

Matt Nichols, a recent graduate of fire science of Aims Community College in Greeley, has plans to apply as a firefighter at the Grand Junction Fire Department.

Battling fires with the Plateau Valley Fire Protection District has long been a family affair, with the three men, and the boys’ mother, Monica, all longtime volunteers.

Matt is now nearly the same age as his father was when Clancy’s sister, Mary Lane, lost her husband.

Mike Lane also worked for Mesa County’s Road and Bridge department and was likely swept away in a river while checking on a flooded road. Since the moment his brother-in-law disappeared, Clancy stepped right up to be a father figure to her children, Mary Lane said.

Now, Matt sees the duties of raising the extended family’s younger generation falling to him.

“More than once, people have said that Matt is his father’s son and he has handled this all with maturity,” said Matt’s aunt, Diana Musselman.

Matt has plans to finish some of the projects his father started, like working on the backyard of his home.

Family members recalled Clancy’s ability to make family gatherings and holidays fun, like teaching the young ones to put olives on their fingers. He was known for alternately being the fun relative, by buying a host of white elephant gifts or discretely stuffing candy into children’s pockets. But Clancy also had a stickler side.

He wouldn’t let Matt build so much as a shed outside of code, and no teenagers were allowed to get their driver’s license until Clancy approved of it, his mother, Mary Lou Ridenour, said.

That meant driving the winding country roads around Collbran strictly at the speed limit, never having to step on the brakes.

Clancy pressed for his two sons to go to college, not having gone himself but seeing the benefits of a college degree, Matt said.

Danny Nichols had always wanted to travel and got his passport with dreams of moving to New Zealand.

However, after landing a job as a geologist, all he wanted was to move back to Plateau Valley. Danny was looking at purchasing a piece of land across KE Road from his grandmother’s home when he was killed, Matt said.

Wes Hawkins, who worked for years with the Collbran Conservancy District to get water to users, also was exceedingly generous with his free time. In addition to coaching various sports teams, Hawkins voluntarily shot and produced game photos of local athletes, Matt said.

Matt didn’t get a wink of sleep in the night and next day after the landslide, searching for the lost men.

He also kept his wide swath of family members updated as much as possible.

Looking out over the landslide that has been called an “act of God” leaves no one to blame, Matt said.

There won’t be a trial for a suspected killer. There’s no one to hate. Family members may never be able to bury their loved ones.

Matt said he finds some consolation in that his father and brother and Wes Hawkins were trying to help others when they were killed.

From where they were checking in on water infrastructure and its impact to a road, they wouldn’t have seen the mound of mud uphill, Matt said.

“You can’t look away,” Matt said of the sheer mass of debris. “You’re an ant on the world. That’s why they were there. To make it safe for others.”


Information from: The Daily Sentinel, https://www.gjsentinel.com

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