Orlin Wagner, Associated Press
ATCHISON, Kan. — Three young men were killed in a thunderous explosion at a Kansas grain elevator and recovery efforts for three other people presumed dead were being hampered by the damage, authorities said late Sunday.
The blast, which shook the ground so hard that it was felt in neighboring Missouri, was 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 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.
The three Bartlett Grain Co. workers killed were identified late Sunday by local authorities as Chad Roberts, 20; Ryan Federinko, 21; and John Burke, 24. Two other employees were hospitalized with severe burns.
Bartlett officials decided to temporarily halt the search for three other people presumed dead — one worker and two grain inspectors — because of safety concerns inside the heavily damaged facility. In a statement late Sunday, company officials "it is apparent that they also were killed in the explosion."
Smoke could still be seen billowing from the top of the elevator Sunday, and officials were fearful the building could fall on top of rescue crews.
"It's a fairly dangerous situation. We don't feel comfortable putting fire crews in," Atchison City Manager Trey Cocking said.
Recovery efforts were expected to resume at daybreak Monday, officials said.
Among the three presumed dead was Travis Keil, a war veteran who had served as a site inspector for 16 years. His parents, Gary and Ramona Keil, drove from Salina to Atchison, to wait with his three children — ages 8, 12 and 15 — as crews searched.
"We have all our prayers working for him," Gary Keil said. "It's a parent's worst nightmare to go through this."
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. The company brought in a South Dakota-based engineer with expertise in such accidents to help federal safety investigators on the scene.
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 including In Nebraska, Illinois, Ohio, South Dakota and Louisiana. None were fatal, but several sent workers scrambling and one in Toledo, Ohio in September 2010 forced people to evacuate from a nearby mobile home park.
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.
Fireballs are a common feature of grain dust explosions, where intense heat from the blast can reach 1,500 to 2,000 degrees.
Dust from corn is among the most dangerous. Most dust explosions happen in late summer and early fall when old, dried grain is being cleaned out of elevators in preparation for the harvest. Freshly harvested corn is less explosive because its wetter.
The Atchison elevator, which is federally licensed to handle up to 1.18 million bushels, is among roughly 850-plus elevators in Kansas. The state is now winding up its fall harvest of corn, sorghum and soybeans.
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