Fatal accident on Grand Mesa ‘heartbreaking and infuriating’

Recreationists: Pleas for safety at trail head went unheeded

Nora O’Brien of Paonia unloads her equipment at the County Line trail head as a truck passes at highway speed on Colorado Highway 65 on Grand Mesa. Two pedestrians were killed in the trail head parking lot over the weekend. The parking lot’s surface Monday was very slippery, with hard-packed snow and ice.



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Nora O’Brien of Paonia unloads her equipment at the County Line trail head as a truck passes at highway speed on Colorado Highway 65 on Grand Mesa. Two pedestrians were killed in the trail head parking lot over the weekend. The parking lot’s surface Monday was very slippery, with hard-packed snow and ice.

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QUICKREAD

Meeting tonight

Grand Mesa Nordic Council will speak about Saturday’s fatal accident during their regular board meeting at 7 p.m. tonight at the Bill Heddles Recreation Center, 530 Gunnison Drive in Delta.



For years, members of the Grand Mesa Nordic Council had warned authorities that someone could be killed if improvements weren’t made to the popular, but dangerous, entry into the County Line trail head on Grand Mesa.

Their nightmare materialized last weekend when Grand Junction couple, Glen Eyre, 65, and Linda Eyre, 63, were struck and killed by a vehicle that careened into the parking area.

On Saturday morning, 21-year-old Joshua Ooms of Cedaredge was driving his Ford Explorer north on Colorado Highway 65 when he swerved out of the path of another vehicle driven by Bradley McKee, 50, of Fruita, that was making a U-turn in the road. The Eyres, who were in the parking area located not more than 50 feet from the roadway, died at the scene after being struck by Ooms’ vehicle, according to the Colorado State Patrol.

For members of the Grand Mesa Nordic Council, the deaths are especially senseless because they were avoidable.

Making the parking area safer, even pressing state agencies for the installation of caution signs, was a goal that they weren’t able to realize in time, members said.

“It’s heartbreaking and infuriating,” said Christie Aschwanden, a former president of the Nordic Council. “I sat in these offices and told people they would die if nothing was done. I feel like I banged my head against a brick wall. The bottom line is, this didn’t need to happen.”

For the last decade, the Nordic Council has identified improvements at County Line as one of their top priorities. Work on adding parking spaces, bathrooms and a changing hut are under way, but the first signs of construction won’t be completed until at least next summer. The project is a combination of efforts from the Nordic Council, Delta County, Mesa County and the U.S. Forest Service.

The parking area at County Line is especially dangerous because there’s little separation between skiers and snowshoers entering and exiting vehicles and vehicles passing on the highway, members said. There is a posted 55-mph limit in that area.

Blind curves from the north and the south make the parking area tricky for skiers and snowshoers to pull over quickly. Snow cleared from the road and packed well over the tops of cars along the east side can further cramp the roadway. The pullout often gets so crowded on winter weekends that people double-park their vehicles.

Spokeswoman Lee Ann Loupe of the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forests said that improving County Line’s trail head has been a top priority for the agency, but work probably won’t get under way until this summer and into 2014. Most of the delay can be attributed to the search for funding, Loupe said. Final designs haven’t been set, but should be ready by early spring, she added.

The proposed project is estimated to cost $326,000. Mesa County is expected to contribute gravel for the project and Delta County will provide personnel and earth-moving services.

“We’ve been doing continual work on parking on the mesa over time,” Loupe said, citing other trail heads that have been improved, such as Mesa Top and Skyway.

Still, it’s unfortunate that the wait to bolster the County Line parking area resulted in a worst-case scenario, Nordic Council board member Tom Ela said.

Ela reiterated that the group has long asked for help in mitigating the dangers at County Line.

“When you’re dealing with the bureaucracies, it seems like it takes forever,” he said. “It drags on years and years. It really is very unfortunate that things can’t be expedited — especially when there’s a dangerous situation.”



COMMENTS

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Until the improvements are made, everyone needs to BACK IN to the parking spaces. NEVER have your back facing traffic. I know we all do it, including me, but after witnessing this tragedy, my take-away advice is to back in.
—Lauren Goodknight

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