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Huge Mississppi River Grain Elevator Catches Fire, Explodes

April 4, 1987

BURLINGTON, Iowa (AP) _ A huge grain elevator caught fire and exploded Friday, blowing the tops off storage bins, shattering windows for 25 blocks and forcing evacuation of downtown buildings when flames threatened an underground fuel tank.

Five people were injured, one seriously. Twelve people worked at the elevator, officials said, but most were evacuated when the fire broke out.

″As I was looking up, there was a great big fireball, and the whole thing just kind of exploded,″ said Tony Miller, chief photographer at the town’s daily newspaper, The Hawk Eye. The newspaper’s offices are 350 yards from the elevator.

″We believe it was caused by grain dust, although we don’t have any confirmation,″ said Jerry Ostendorf, operations manager for the state Office of Disaster Services. He called it a major explosion.

The company was cited in 1985 for safety violations involving grain dust and paid a fine, said Mary Bryant, state Occupational Safety and Health Administration administrator.

The Archer Daniels Midland elevator, along the Mississippi River, is used to store grain, principally corn, for shipment by railroad or river barge.

Burning debris, blown hundreds of yards away, started small fires after the 10:40 a.m. blast. A barge and railroad cars east of the terminal also caught fire, witnesses said. The explosion blew the tops out of six concrete, 10- story storage bins in the 12-bin complex, and other bins were damaged.

″It blew the lid right off,″ said Charles Gates, The Hawk Eye’s managing editor. ″It was like a 2,000-pound bomb going off.″

At 3 p.m., more than four hours after the blast, Police Chief Ted Behne said there was no more danger of explosions and people were being allowed back in a 10-block area that had been cleared.

Officials had feared railroad tank cars containing anhydrous ammonia, a hazardous compound used in making farm fertilizers, might explode or that the flames might reach an underground diesel fuel tank.

Miller said he and fellow photographer Mark Fageol heard the fire call and were walking toward the elevator when the blast hit.

″I had to take a step back to catch myself. As I looked up there was all kinds of sheet metal and burning wood and hot embers and a lot of smoke, and all of that stuff was starting to rain down,″ Miller said.

Miller said he took cover under a railroad car overhang.

″The heat was so intense you could hardly stand it. I looked at my hand as I was shooting and it was kind of burning, it was that hot. I have kind of a red mark on my hand,″ he said.

The thick cloud of smoke was detected on National Weather Service radar 75 miles northeast in Moline, Ill.

Five people were taken to a local hospital, but four were released. Elevator manager Jerome Kersten was admitted to Burlington Medical Center with first- and second-degree burns and possible smoke inhalation.

The company had no estimate of the damage and did not know how the fire started, Archer Daniels Midland spokesman Doug Snyder said from company headquarters in Decatur, Ill.

Snyder said he was not familiar with the 1985 violations and could not comment on them.

The terminal is licensed to handle 1.319 million bushels of grain, said Donna Gwinn, acting director of the grain warehouse office of the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship. She said she didn’t know how much grain was stored before the explosion.