ATCHISON, Kan. - Farmers take their grain to grain elevators after harvest to store it before it is marketed or sold. The Bartlett grain bin is a large, concrete structure used for elevating, storing, discharging, and sometimes processing grain.
The fatal explosion in Atchison was a harrowing reminder of the dangers workers face inside elevators brimming with highly combustible grain dust at the end of harvest season. The blast fired 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 a concrete silo.
One expert said it only takes a spark from something like a light switch to cause an explosion inside a grain elevator.
Dr, Donna Hall, a chemistry professor at Park University, said the dust, created by the corn, is trapped inside the elevator and is highly flammable.
A spark can ignite the dust and oxygen in the air can create a fire ball.
"You have to think about the secondary explosion, because the initial fire comes from the dust, but the pressure of the initial explosion airlizes all the rest of it that's clinging to the walls," said Hall.
Hall said a lot of safety changes have been made since the 1980s.
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. Last year, there were non-fatal grain explosions or fires in several states including Nebraska, Illinois, Ohio, South Dakota and Louisiana