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Grain elevator explosion claims 6 lives

By Doug Rich

MEMORIAL—Mckinley Keil, 8, wipes away tears as she looks at a memorial Monday, Oct. 31, 2011 outside the Bartlett Grain Company in Atchison, Kan. Keil's dad, Travis Keil, was one of six people killed in an explosion at the elevator Saturday night. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel.)

The death toll in the tragic grain elevator explosion reached six when three more bodies were found on Oct. 31 at the Bartlett Grain Company facility in Atchison, Kan. There were 12 people working at the facility at the time of the explosion. Four were not injured, two were taken to the University of Kansas Medical Center, and six were killed.

The victims of the blast have been identified as John Burke, 24, of Denton, Ryan Federinko, 21, of Atchison, Chad Roberts, 20, of Atchison, Curtis Field, 21, Atchison, Travis Keil, 34, Topeka, and Darrek Klahr, 43, of Wetmore. Burke, Federinko, Roberts, and Field were elevator employees. Keil and Klahr were grain inspectors working for the Kansas Grain Inspection Service.

Bob Knief, senior vice president of Bartlett Grain Company, issued a press release Oct. 31 emphasizing that their thoughts and prayers will remain with the men who were killed and their families.

"From the moment we knew of this explosion, we have done everything possible to get the best possible care for the injured and to safely recover those who were killed," Knief said. "And we have been directly and repeatedly in contact with the closest family members."

"The Bartlett companies have been a strong presence in this region for over 100 years and our safety record has been exemplary," Knief said. "Of course, we are fully cooperating with OSHA and the other relevant government entities which are on the scene."

According to Occupational Safety and Health Administration records, there have been 600 explosions at U.S. grain handling facilities in the last 40 years that resulted in 250 fatalities and 1,000 injured. Tom Tunnell, Kansas Feed and Grain Association, said the last major grain elevator explosion in Kansas was in 1998 at DeBruce Grain in Wichita.

Seven people were killed and 10 injured in that explosion 13 years ago. A bad conveyor belt bearing was to blame for that accident, according to federal investigators.

"To put that in perspective there are approximately 900 grain facilities in the state of Kansas that handle 1.3 billion bushels of some type of grain every year on the average," Tunnell said. "The industry has a pretty amazing record when it comes to handling that many bushels at that many facilities."

The Bartlett Grain Company facility in Atchison had a capacity for 863,000 bushels in upright storage and 325,00 bushels in flat storage.

Grain elevators take a number of precautions to reduce the risk of explosions. Tunnell said precautions begin with grain flow at the dump pit. Most elevators have a dust system right on the dump pit to hold dust down. There are also high-powered magnets under the grain flow to attract and put out any tramp metal before it gets into the system. Tramp metal in the wrong place could cause a spark that results in a fire and explosion. Elevators have explosion proof motors. Many facilities also have monitors to monitor heat from the bearings. Tunnel said that some facilities have relief ports on the legs to release pressure in the case of an explosion.

"Dust control is a major effort at all grain elevators," Tunnell said. "Basically, an explosion can occur if three things are present and those are atmospheric conditions, dust suspended in the right proportion in the air, and a combustion source."

It does not really make any difference if the bins are full or empty if those three elements are present, although the risk for a larger explosion exists if the bins are empty and there is more dust present.

"It is way too early to know the cause of this tragic explosion," Knief said in the prepared release.

Tunnell said at the time of the explosion a train was being loaded and the inspectors were doing on-site grading of the grain quality going into the railroad cars. Each carload is sampled and graded.

"The reason we have on-site grain inspectors is that the railroad gives a favorable rail rate if a facility can load a 110 car train in under 18 hours," Tunnel said. "To facilitate that speed we need someone to be on-site to grade the grain."

In his prepared statement Knief also expressed his appreciation for the emergency responders who facilitated the recovery of the victims from the grain elevator.

Doug Rich can be reached by phone at 785-749-5304 or by e-mail at richhpj@aol.com.

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