A report released last week on the failure of the Spencer Dam by the Association of State Dam Safety Officials was held last week with a press conference by Colorado engineer Mark Baker and news media about the findings of the investigation.
The report went into details about the history of the dam including previous failures that had not been considered in classifying the dam due to Kenny Angel's home and the Angel Bar below the dam. Baker said the panel with help from History Nebraska combed through old local newspaper records and found that the dam had failed several times, in the 1930s and 1960s.
The panel was able to recreate much of what went on the night of the dam failure using eyewitness accounts and timestamped data. Two operators on duty opened as many of the concrete spillway gates as possible, but it likely became clogged with the ice chunks and some of the gates also froze in place. Ice was hitting the dam with such force that one of the operators shot a video of the structure shaking hours before the dam broke.
Shortly after 4:30 a.m. on the morning of March 14, the dam’s powerhouse began to take on water and the two operators attempted to drive to the other side of the dam, but realized the water was beginning to flow over the top. They stopped at Kenny Angel’s house before attempting to go back to the dam’s powerhouse one last time.
They alerted him to the danger, and according to the report, Angel appeared to understand the gravity of the situation. The operators then left without him. His body has not been recovered.
After seeing fireballs in the powerhouse, indicating that the station was likely flooded, the operators fled the area and called 911.
The time of the dam failure was estimated to be around 5 to 5:15 a.m.
Baker said one of the key findings of the investigation was that the dam’s potential danger was not properly assessed.
There are different classifications that dams are given based on their risk of failing and the potential consequences of a failure.
Spencer Dam was rated as a “significant” risk, the second most hazardous classification. Baker said the dam should have been rated “high” risk, the highest risk classification, because a failure could cause a loss of human life. Classifying the dam as the highest risk would have necessitated a comprehensive emergency action plan that could have helped save Angel’s life.
Baker said that state inspectors should have taken note of the adjacent property, which would have raised the risk level to the maximum.
Baker said he wasn’t sure how the fact a property sat right underneath the dam was missed by state regulators.
“They would have to drive right by (the property) to get to the dam,” Baker said.
Baker said that ultimately, the investigation will hopefully lead to dam owners and engineers becoming more aware of the danger of ice runs and also more awareness as to the history of old dams that may have spotty history. If that had been the case for the Spencer Dam, a tragedy may have been prevented.