Rescue efforts suspended at Kansas grain elevator

Monday, October 31, 2011

ATCHISON, Kan. -- Crews suspended their search Sunday for three people missing after a thunderous explosion at a Kansas grain elevator killed three workers and hospitalized two others with severe burns.

Officials with the company that owns and operates the elevator said in a statement that they know the location of those who are missing and will resume the search at some point. They have brought an engineer to the scene to help develop a plan on how to continue the recovery effort.

The blast, which shook the ground so hard that it was felt into neighboring Missouri, is a harrowing reminder of the dangers workers face inside elevators brimming with highly combustible grain dust at the end of the harvest season.

The explosion Saturday night at the elevator in Atchison, about 50 miles northwest of Kansas City, sent an orange fireball into the night sky, shot off a chunk of the grain distribution building directly above the elevator and blew a large hole in the side of the one of its concrete silos.

Bartlett Grain Co. officials decided to temporarily halt the search for the three missing people -- one worker and two grain inspectors -- because it was unsafe to be inside the facility, said Atchison City Manager Trey Cocking. Smoke could still be seen billowing from the top, and officials were fearful the building could fall on top of rescue crews.

He said crews had not given up hope that they would find the remaining three alive, although the search was now considered a recovery effort. The victims' names had not been released by Bartlett Grain as of Sunday evening.

Rob Nohr, an engineer from Yankton, S.D., hired by Bartlett Grain, was at the scene Sunday night with federal safety investigators assessing the situation and coming up with the next steps of the recovery plan. Grain company officials said Nohr is an expert in helping investigate such accidents.

Bartlett Grain President Bill Fellows said in a statement that workers were loading a train with corn when the explosion occurred, but the cause was not immediately known.

Over the past four decades, there have more than 600 explosions at grain elevators, killing more than 250 people and injuring more than 1,000, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Just last year, there were grain explosions or fires in several states.

When grain is handled at elevators, it creates dust that floats around inside the storage facility. The finer the grain dust particles, the greater its volatility. Typically, something -- perhaps sparks from equipment or a cigarette -- ignites the dust. That sends a pressure wave that detonates the rest of the floating dust in the facility.

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