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.
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.
Officials with Bartlett Grain Co., which owns and operates the elevator, 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 collapse on top of rescue crews.
Heavy equipment, federal safety investigators and engineers were expected to arrive later Sunday to assist the crews.
"It's a fairly dangerous situation. We don't feel comfortable putting fire crews in," Cocking said.
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.
One of the missing 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.
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 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.