Investigation ongoing at Bartlett grain elevator

by Ron Sterk
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ATCHISON, KAS. — The investigation into the cause of an Oct. 29 explosion at the Bartlett Grain Company, L.P., elevator in Atchison continued this week as the Kansas State Fire Marshall’s Office issued initial findings and the company said it planned to rebuild the facility.

“We want to thank the Atchison community for the outpouring of support we have received in the last week and a half,” Bill Fellows, Bartlett Grain president, said earlier this week. “We continue to work closely with the federal and state investigators on site to determine the cause of the explosion.

“Going forward, we intend to rebuild in Atchison. We felt strongly about this community four-and-a-half years ago when we purchased the elevator, and we remain committed to Atchison today.”

Three Bartlett employees were confirmed dead at the scene following the 7:00 p.m. explosion, according to the city of Atchison. Three others, including two government grain inspectors, were confirmed dead after their bodies were recovered on Oct. 31. Two employees were airlifted from the site to the burn unit of the University of Kansas Hospital in Kansas City, Kas. One has since been released and the other remained in critical condition early last week. Four other workers at the facility were not injured, the city said.

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

The explosion, which sent a fireball into the sky and could be heard three to four miles away, blew the two- to three-story head house off the top of the 125-foot concrete structure, most of which still stood, although a hole also was blown in its side, according to press reports.

It was the worst grain elevator mishap since seven workers were killed and 10 were injured in an explosion at the DeBruce Grain Inc., facility in Haysville, Kas., on June 8, 1998.

It its preliminary report on Nov. 10, the Kansas State Fire Marshall’s Office said the explosion was accidental, originating in the elevator’s main bin area. Grain dust was cited as the fuel for the blast, but cause of the spark that ignited the dust had not yet been determined, according to a source in the Fire Marshall’s office.

The ongoing Fire Marshall’s investigation was expected to be final in a few weeks, while an investigation by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration may not be released for several months, a spokesman for the company said. The Bartlett facility had not been cited for any OSHA violations.

The elevator had storage capacity of about 1.3 million bus, according to Milling & Baking News. The company has 1 river facility, 1 subterminal facility, 12 terminal facilities, including two in Atchison, and 13 country elevators, and ranked 20th in total U.S. grain storage capacity in 2011 with 58,781,000 bus.

According to OSHA, there were 461 grain elevator explosions from 1976 through 2005, an average of 15.4 per year. But the number fell sharply from 21.7 a year from 1976 through 1985 to 13.5 from 1986 through 1995 and to 10.6 from 1996 through 2005. OSHA quit collecting data after 2005, but gathered information from Industrial Fire World Magazine from 2006 through 2011, which showed 52 explosions, or 10.4 per year, about even with the 1996-05 period.

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