Ross D. Franklin  /  AP
Seth Johnson on Monday looks down into a mine shaft behind a memorial for a girl, 13, who died there Saturday.
updated 9/4/2007 2:20:27 PM ET 2007-09-04T18:20:27

The hilly desert around this small community is a risky playground, laced with trails that attract all-terrain vehicle riders but dotted with unmarked derelict mine shafts like the one that swallowed two young sisters out for an evening ride.

One of the girls died in the Labor Day weekend fall into the gaping hole and the other was seriously injured.

"I don't go anywhere off a trail here," said Bill Keller, who has lived in Chloride for 10 years and goes ATV riding in the hills regularly. "I am totally amazed that it hasn't happened before."

The terrain and clumps of brush concealed the mine near a dirt road in the hills, visible from the home of 13-year-old Rikki Howard and her 10-year-old sister, Casie Hicks.

The girls were riding an ATV early Saturday evening when they plunged into the 125-foot-deep mine shaft. Their father was riding ahead of them and didn't see the fall. He alerted authorities after they vanished, but the darkness hindered the search.

Early Sunday, Rikki was found dead in the shaft and her younger sister was taken to University Medical Center in Las Vegas. Casie was in serious condition there Tuesday, university spokeswoman Cheryl Persinger said. She had no further information.

"They're just about as distraught as humans can be," said Seth Johnson, a neighbor.

'Everyone's backyard'
Several relatives placed a cross that read "In loving memory: Rikki." They placed yellow daisies on the cross and laid purple and orange tulips and a pink teddy bear at its base. They declined to talk about the tragedy.

Riding in the countryside was a frequent pastime for the family.

"These mountains are everyone's backyard," said Russell Agee, who goes up to the hills where the accident happened at least once a week. "The trails are a lot of fun if you're careful."

Residents estimate there are dozens of abandoned mines in the hills surrounding this old mining community about 200 miles northwest of Phoenix and 80 miles southeast of Las Vegas.

"A lot of them you can't tell they're there until you're right on them," Agee said, riding through town on a mud-spattered four-wheeler.

The mine where the girls were found had no signs or barriers and is believed to be inactive.

'Like a serpent's mouth'
"It's like a serpent's mouth waiting to swallow you up," Johnson said at the site.

Ownership of the shaft had yet to be determined, according to the Arizona State Mine Inspector's office.

Officials say there are an estimated 100,000 abandoned mines in Arizona, which has a long history of prospecting and mining for gold, silver, copper and other metals. Many mines date back to the 1800s, making it impossible in some cases to trace ownership. Chloride was founded as a silver mining town in the 1860s, according to the Chamber of Commerce.

Many were in remote areas, but sprawling development has brought people closer to them. State Mine Inspector Joe Hart said ATVs and dirt bikes have also added traffic to areas that were once largely unreachable.

"You can go anywhere and everybody's curiosity is raging when they're on those things," Hart said.

Residents have begun collecting money for the family.

"What a shame for children so young," said Bonnie McNeely, the owner of Chloride's only restaurant, Yesterdays. "How quickly tragedy can happen."

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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