Rock slide kills 2 in Rockville, experts say more slides are possible

Posted at 10:45 PM, Dec 13, 2013
and last updated 2013-12-14 00:49:47-05

ROCKVILLE, Utah -- The rock slide that hit Rockville Thursday night has been so dangerous, city officials are now worried about another slide.

Mandatory evacuations are in place for a few neighbors who live close to the scene off State Route 9.

On Thursday around 5 p.m., a massive boulder the size of a tractor came loose at the top of a cliff near Zion National Park and tumbled down the mountain, flattening a two-story cabin and killing two people.

"We've had a week of severe weather, a lot of freeze-thaw, a lot of moisture, I'm sure that was a contributor," said Bill Lund, who is a geologist with the Utah Geological Survey

Maureen Morris, 65, and Jeff Elsey, 58, were crushed to death. A trackhoe operator removed their bodies from the debris around noon on Friday.  They were well-known and well-liked retirees from Southern California who moved to Rockville 6 years ago.

"There's a great deal of sorrow in the community, I think it's shock," Mayor Dan McGuire said.

Moments before several boulders leveled the home, neighbors heard rumbling.

"I got out of the shower, and I went and got dried off, looked out the window and there was dust everywhere," Neighbor Daniel Pettegrew said.

Geologists said the danger is well known in Rockville, and the town has had a handful of rock slides in the last decade--but no one has been killed until now.

"We checked our maps this morning and this home is dead center, right in the middle of a high hazard zone," Lund said.

After surveying the cliff by helicopter Friday, geologists discovered another massive unstable boulder plus two others that are gradually coming loose.

That prompted mandatory evacuations. Geologists said they warned of the dangers in a 2010 report, thinking it would prompt mitigation, but that hasn't happened.

"The question becomes: Are you going to do this house by house or will you approach it from the standpoint of the community coming in and doing some kind of global fix?  Those are questions that need to be addressed and answered I guess," Lund said.

"We can tell people the obvious: If you want to live in a home there, there's a danger," McGuire said. "You can't tell people where they can't live unless you have an ordinance that restricts that, perhaps it's time to look at some of the ordinances relative to these cliffs."

The mayor doesn't feel mitigations such as fences or berms would catch the massive boulders.  He thinks homeowners simply need to be aware of the hazards in the area. City officials said the scene will not be cleaned-up, and the neighbors won't be allowed to return home until temperatures rise above freezing and stabilize.