ATCHISON — Ramona Keil was talking on the phone Friday afternoon to her son Travis, a grain inspector at the Bartlett Grain Co., about his weekend plans.
"He was working a train at the time," she said. "Said he was thinking of taking Saturday off. I said, 'Go for it.' He didn't."
Instead, Travis Keil was at a Bartlett Grain elevator Saturday night as train cars were being loaded when an explosion tore through the facility. The sound and concussion carried for miles, and people in Missouri saw the fireball.
Keil, 34, of Topeka is still missing, as are a Bartlett employee and the other grain inspector who was at the facility.
Of the nine others who were at the grain elevator when the explosion struck about 7 p.m., three are confirmed dead, two were flown to the University of Kansas Hospital's burn unit and four, including the only woman present, were not injured.
The explosion blew a two- to three-story structure called a head house off the top of the 125-foot elevator. Most of the concrete structure, which stands about 300 feet from the Missouri River, appears intact, but parts of the head house — where much of the elevator's machinery is housed — is still hanging from the top of the elevator.
An inspector from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration was on the scene early Sunday, and that afternoon a structural engineer hired by Bartlett Grain circled the grain elevator in a Kansas Highway Patrol helicopter.
"We want to make sure the scene is secure," said Atchison City Manager Trey Cocking. "We don't want any of our people hurt."
Cocking, who said he heard the explosion from his house four miles away, expected that crews would use heavy construction equipment to shore up the structure, which was built in the 1970s, and excavate debris. Excavating equipment already was there Sunday.
Crews suspended their search late Sunday afternoon because of safety concerns. Cocking said crews had not given up hope that they would find the remaining three men alive, although the search was now considered a recovery effort.
The victims' names had not been released by Bartlett Grain as of Sunday evening.
Company 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.
Paul Moccia, who lives about a half mile from the grain elevator, said the explosion shook his house and 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," said Moccia, 57.
"Everybody came outside. Neighbors were trying to figure out what was going on. It was quite a thump."
A dangerous job
Over the past four decades, there have been 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 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 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.
The Atchison elevator, which is federally licensed to handle up to 1.18 billion bushels, is among roughly 850-plus elevators in Kansas.
OSHA has expanded its inspections and efforts to control volatile grain dust in Kansas elevators since an explosion in June 1998 at DeBruce Grain facility near Haysville, which killed seven workers and injured 10 others, said Tom Tunnell, executive director of the Kansas Grain and Feed Association, the industry group representing Kansas grain elevators.
OSHA brought in a team of outside experts who concluded that the DeBruce explosion was caused by an excessive buildup of grain dust that was sparked by a faulty bearing on a conveyor belt.
Tunnell said the industry as a whole has increased awareness of the dangers since a number of elevator explosions along the Gulf in the 1970s.
"If ever an industry is... well trained, it is ours. We understand dust is an explosive agent and our members work hard to control it," Tunnell said Sunday.
The Atchison facility where the blast occurred has not been cited for any violations in the past 10 years, according to OSHA data, though Bartlett Grain Co. was cited after two people died in separate incidents at two of its other facilities. Neither of those fatalities involved explosions at grain elevators.
In 2007, a Bartlett Grain maintenance employee died in a fall from a work platform at the company's facility in St. Joseph, Mo. In 2004, another employee died while operating a lift that fell backward at a company site in Kansas City, Mo.
"The industry has had a good record — except for a few of this type — considering the billions and billions of bushels of grain handled," Tunnell said.
Travis Keil, a war veteran, had been a grain inspector for about 16 years.
"He was an adventure seeker, but he never considered this a dangerous job," said his father, Gary Keil.
Keil's mother said she learned of the explosion when his boss called her about 11 p.m. Saturday. She, Keil's father and other family members left their homes in Salina and reached Atchison about 2 a.m. On Sunday morning, they stood vigil at a point overlooking the elevator.
"I've seen sides or bottoms (of elevators explode). I've never seen the top blow off," said Gary Rupert, one of Keil's in-laws.
Smoke could still be seen Sunday evening coming from the top of the elevator towers. Grain elevator fires can smolder for weeks.
The elevator where the explosion struck is one of three in Atchison, according to Cocking. A fourth is nearby, outside the city limits.
In this town of about 11,000 people, many know or are related to people who work at the Bartlett elevator.
"It's going to affect everyone in the community," said the Rev. Ken Watkins, pastor of the New Life Assembly of God church.
Several members of the congregation said during Sunday morning's service that they knew people who had died or been injured in the explosion.
"We prayed about it and talked about it," Watkins said.