ATCHISON, Kan. — Most of the men killed in a recent grain elevator explosion in Kansas were younger than 25, all employed in an industry that relies on youthful workers who can withstand the physical demands of the job — and are prepared to face the inherent risks.
Farmers take their grain to elevators to be stored and sometimes processed before it's marketed or sold. Fine, highly combustible grain particles flow through the buildings as corn and other grain are moved, and a mere spark can ignite it and send a pressure wave that detonates the rest of the floating dust.
Six people died and two others were seriously injured in the blast Saturday at the Bartlett Grain Co. elevator in Atchison, about 50 miles northwest of Kansas City. Conditions inside the facility, including unstable concrete and steel beams, prevented search crews from finding three of those killed until Monday.
The victims included an Iraq war veteran and father, an avid collector of model John Deere tractors who hoped to farm and a young man looking forward to his wedding only three weeks away. Their relatives gathered and set up a memorial outside the facility Monday.
"We just love him and miss him and want him back, and it was just wrong timing," said 12-year-old Teagan Keil, whose father, 34-year-old Travis Keil, was killed in the blast.
"People say you don't know what you have until you lose it, and I've lost him," the boy said, crying as he spoke with reporters Monday. He said he wished he would have spent last weekend with his father instead of his friends.
Keil was among two grain inspectors killed in the blast. The father of three and Iraqi war veteran from Topeka had been a site inspector for 16 years. His parents, Gary and Ramona Keil, said he occasionally mentioned the potential danger involved but enjoyed his job.
The other victims were elevator employees John Burke, 24, of Denton, Kan., and Atchison residents Ryan Federinko, 21, Curtis Field, 21, and Chad Roberts, 20. The other grain inspector killed was Darrek Klahr, 43, of Wetmore, Kan.
One worker remained in critical condition Monday and another was listed as serious, according to The University of Kansas Hospital.
The memorial for the victims included a wreath of sunflowers, which were part of the theme for the wedding reception Roberts and his fiancée had planned at a local Veterans of Foreign Wars hall. The high school sweethearts planned to marry Nov. 19, and they'd already bought a home in April and renovated it.
"He was fun, and he couldn't wait to be a husband and a dad," said Roberts' fiancée, Alicia Cobleigh. She said he liked to hunt and that he often took her fishing.
There have been more than 600 explosions at grain elevators, killing more than 250 people and injuring more than 1,000 over the past four decades, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Last year, there were non-fatal grain explosions or fires in several states including Nebraska, Illinois, Ohio, South Dakota and Louisiana.
But Tom Tunnell, executive director of the Kansas Grain and Feed Association, the industry's trade group, said he worked at an elevator for nine years and likened the possibility of major accidents to the chance of being involved in an airplane crash.
The cause of Saturday's explosion is still under investigation. Senior Vice President Bob Knief said Bartlett's safety record was "exemplary" and the company is cooperating with OSHA and other government agencies. He spoke at a news conference but declined to answer questions.
Bartlett Grain Co. worker Joey Arnold, 21, of Atchison, was outside the elevator when the explosion occurred, in a locomotive, pushing grain cars forward. He ran from the blast, escaping without physical injury.
"A fireball shot out the back," he said.
Tunnel said grain elevators tend to attract younger employees because though the work is labor intensive, involving loading and unloading grain, it provides competitive wages.
An association survey of 40 Kansas elevators found warehouse employees doing harvest work earned an average of $33,300 in wages and bonuses last year. Maintenance workers earned an average of $45,500, and superintendents made about $45,500 to $47,000 a year.
"A lot of these individuals don't necessarily have a four-year degree for something like this, so there are a lot of great local career opportunities that grain elevator facilities provide," said Sarah Bowser, the group's membership services director. "And when you drive across Kansas, you see a local grain elevator almost everywhere."
Field, one of the employees who died, had worked at the Bartlett elevator for nearly a year while also working on his family's farm. He also collected model tractors, yet didn't talk about the potential dangers of working at an elevator, his parents said.
"Until this happened, everything was just good," said Lynn Field, his father. "He enjoyed coming to work, and he enjoyed the people he was working with. And that makes for a nice, happy job."