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Avalanche sweeps cars off Colorado highway

Story Highlights

NEW: U.S. 40 reopens Saturday night after road cleared
• Officials confident no one else needs to be rescued
• At least 8 people rescued from two vehicles, officials say
• Avalanche huge: 200 feet wide, 15 feet deep
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DENVER, Colorado (CNN) -- A massive avalanche -- 200 feet wide and 15 feet deep -- swept across one of Colorado's main recreation routes Saturday, sweeping at least two cars off the road and prompting a search for survivors.

Officials said at least eight people were rescued from the two cars and taken by ambulance to hospitals. Authorities said no one appeared to have life-threatening injuries.

Video showed huge piles of snow on three areas of U.S. 40, with the avalanche cutting three paths through mountain trees before landing on the roadway near the 11,307-foot-high Berthoud Pass, about 50 miles west of Denver. (Watch how snow blocks the highway in three places Video)

Amateur photographer Pete Ferigan told CNN that about two dozen motorists jumped out of their vehicles and used shovels, ski poles and their hands to try to rescue others.

Ferigan said the snow swept two vehicles about 300 feet off the road. (Watch a car turned upside down by snow Video)

Dale Atkins, an avalanche safety expert who was on the scene soon after it happened at 10:30 a.m. (12:30 p.m. ET), said officials used a "fancy" metal detector and another device that can pick up electronic devices in cars to find the two vehicles amid the snow.

"We were able to search the debris very fast, and we feel pretty good that no one [else] is in it," he told CNN.

Stacy Stegman, spokeswoman for the Colorado Department of Transportation, also said authorities were confident no other cars were buried.

Around 8 p.m. (10 p.m. ET), Stegman said the road was open again after crews had worked to clear the debris amid whipping winds up to 40 mph and deteriorating conditions.

The state highway is used to get to ski resorts from Denver.

Bob Wilson, another DOT spokesman, said crews at the scene described it as the "largest avalanche slide that they've ever seen in those areas."

Avalanches in that area typically are 2 to 3 feet deep, Stegman said.

"This is a tremendous amount of snow to come down on the mountainside for us," said Stegman. "We don't typically see these types of avalanches."

Stegman said traffic to the ski area is heavy earlier in the morning, but usually has eased by the hour the avalanche happened.

"That's one of the things that we're very thankful for at this moment," she said. "If it would have happened just a couple hours earlier, this could have been a very different situation." (Watch a traveler on the road talk about lack of avalanche warnings Video)

Three successive snowstorms through the area in the past several weeks, combined with high winds, contributed to conditions favorable for the avalanche, said CNN meteorologist Bonnie Schneider.

The National Weather Service has issued a blowing snow advisory for the area into Sunday, Schneider said.

Winds were gusting to 40 mph in the area, and steady winds were recorded at 25 mph at the avalanche site.

"But the blowing snow advisory goes straight through Sunday, so we're looking at poor visibility straight into Sunday," Schneider said. "The possibility of maybe a couple more inches of snow combined with strong winds will make for treacherous travel conditions."

The snow rumbled across U.S. 40 in three places near 11,307-foot Berthoud Pass. The busy freeway connects Denver with the Winter Park ski resort.



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