updated 3/21/2005 12:58:06 PM ET 2005-03-21T17:58:06

Three children missing since a powerful blast leveled a secluded mountain lodge in western Colorado are presumed dead, the sheriff said Monday as searchers began combing the rubble for their bodies.

The three children, ages 3, 12 and 16, who were from the same extended family that owned the Electric Mountain Lodge, Delta County Sheriff Fred McKee said.

Sixteen other people were injured in the blast. Names of the victims were not released.

Despite heavy snowfall overnight, searchers got one piece of heavy equipment up a rugged mountain trail Monday to start clearing the charred remains of the lodge. The rubble had been too hot Sunday for fire investigators and search crews to enter.

Officials had not determined what triggered the explosion Saturday, but said it may have been caused by propane gas used for heat. The explosion left only two chimneys and smoldering rubble, witnesses said.

Steve Douglas, one of the lodge’s co-owners, said a family reunion was scheduled for the building. “Luckily, everyone hadn’t arrived. It was pretty vacant at the time,” Douglas said.

Isolated location
The lodge is in the Gunnison National Forest on the western slopes of the Rockies, about 230 miles southwest of Denver. It was isolated by heavy snow, and helicopters took injured people off the mountain while ground crews used snowmobiles and tracked vehicles to get emergency medical teams to the site.

Some people were standing outside the building when it exploded, and rushed to help those inside before flames engulfed the structure, McKee said.

Dozens of residents around the small town of 1,500 swarmed to the scene Saturday to help rescuers reach the lodge. Don Holt, 39, and his brother Brad, a volunteer firefighter, used their own snowmobiles to ferry firefighters and medical personnel.

“It was a somber, gut-wrenching, heartfelt ordeal,” Holt said.

The Rev. Rick Clair, pastor of the nearby Crawford United Methodist Church, said he rushed to a school serving as a command center in Paonia after hearing about the explosion.

“I came up to see what I could do, and we just took care of the families as best we could,” he said.

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