Kansas grain elevator explosion kills three; rescue efforts temporarily suspended

Sunday, October 30, 2011 | 4:52 p.m. CDT

ATCHISON, Kan. — Crews temporarily suspended their search Sunday for three people missing since an explosion at a Kansas grain elevator killed three workers and left two critically injured with severe burns.

Atchison City Manager Trey Cocking said officials with Bartlett Grain Co. decided it was unsafe for anyone to be inside the facility until later Sunday, when some heavy equipment was expected to arrive to assist them.

The explosion blew off a chunk of a grain distribution building that sits directly above the elevator, and Cocking said officials were fearful the building could fall on top of rescue crews amid the search. The efforts were already called off overnight because of darkness.

"It's a fairly dangerous situation. We don't feel comfortable putting fire crews in," Cocking said.

Although crews were considering the effort a recovery mission, Cocking said they hadn't given up hope that the one elevator company worker and two state grain inspectors might be found alive.

Family members of one of the missing, Travis Keil, 34, of Topeka, headed Sunday to Atchison to await news about his whereabouts. Gary and Ramona Keil, who made the drive from Salina with Travis Keil's three children, ages 8, 12 and 15, said their son was a war veteran who had been working as a site inspector for 16 years.

"We have all our prayers working for him," Gary Keil said.

Two other victims who were admitted to the burn unit of University of Kansas Hospital in Kansas City, Kan., were listed in critical condition there Sunday morning, hospital spokesman Dennis McCulloch said.

Cocking said four other people associated with the explosion escaped without injuries. No names were being released pending notification of families.

With smoke still billowing from the facility Sunday, train traffic past the elevator was being rerouted. A few emergency crews, including Union Pacific Railroad, drove to the scene as daylight broke.

The explosion could be seen and felt across Atchison, shaking homes and businesses up to four miles away. The cause was not immediately known, though grain elevator accidents can occur after grain dust becomes suspended in the air and turns explosive in the right conditions.

Paul Moccia, 57, lives in Atchison about a half mile from the grain elevator. He said the explosion shook his house and that lights flickered across his neighborhood for about 30 seconds.

"It was extremely loud. It was kind of like to me a double whomp, — a bomp bomp. It reverberated, and kind of echoed down through the valley ... kind of like a shock wave," he said. "Everybody came outside. Neighbors were trying to figure out what was going on. It was quite a thump."

Bartlett Grain President Bill Fellows said in a statement that workers were loading a train with corn when the explosion occurred about 7 p.m. Saturday. The company planned to issue an updated statement Sunday.

Explosions are a leading hazard at grain elevators. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, there have been more than 600 explosions during the last four decades, killing more than 250 and injuring more than 1,000. Grain dust is the main source of elevator blasts, as the dust can become airborne and explosive — needing only a slight ignition source, such as electrical sparks, to cause a blast.

OSHA said suffocations are the leading killer at grain bins when workers become trapped in cascading grain. A study by Purdue University and cited by OSHA found 26 suffocation deaths at grain bins in 2010, the highest number on record at the time.

An explosion at a grain elevator in Bartley, Neb., in April 2010, caused no injuries but sent workers scrambling out of the way, while another in Gothenburg, Neb., in December 2010, scattered debris over nearby railroad tracks and a highway, also without injuries, authorities reported at the time.

Elsewhere, explosions or fires were reported at two grain elevators in Illinois in 2010 while a fire burning at a grain elevator in the Toledo, Ohio, area in September 2010 forced people to evacuate from a nearby mobile home park and businesses as a precaution. There were also explosions or fires at elevators in South Dakota and Louisiana that year, none of them fatal.

Authorities said two workers were killed in June 2010 when they were buried under a load of wheat at an elevator in the central Kansas town of Russell though no explosion occurred there.

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