Rescue efforts suspended at Kansas grain elevator

ATCHISON — Crews temporarily suspended their search today for three people missing since an explosion at a Kansas grain elevator that 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 today, 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.

"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, were in 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 this 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 today, 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.

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 today.

Explosions are a leading hazard at grain elevators. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, there have been more than 600 explosions over the last four decades, killing more than 250 and injuring more than 1,000.

In June 1998, seven men were killed and 10 were injured in an explosion at the DeBruce Grain elevator at 5755 S. Hoover near Haysville. OSHA brought in a team of outside experts who concluded that the explosion was caused by an excessive buildup of grain dust that was sparked by a faulty bearing on a conveyor belt.

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 says 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.

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."