Risky grain elevator jobs attract young workers
ATCHISON, Kan.—The men killed in a grain elevator explosion in Kansas included an Iraq war veteran, an avid collector of model John Deere tractors who hoped to farm and a soon-to-be husband looking forward to a wedding only three weeks away.
Four of the six were younger than 25, something unsurprising in a business that experts say involves a lot of physical labor and tends to be a young man's game.
The work there also tends to be dangerous. Farmers take their grain to elevators to be stored, and sometimes processed, before it is marketed or sold. Fine, highly combustible grain particles flow through the buildings as corn and other grain are moved. A spark from equipment or perhaps a cigarette can ignite the dust, sending a pressure wave that detonates the rest of the floating dust in the facility.
Relatives gathered Monday outside the Bartlett Grain Co. elevator in Atchison, about 50 miles northwest of Kansas City. They turned the company's sign outside the elevator into a memorial for the dead, with photos, flowers and a gray sweatshirt honoring one with his name written in marker and the question, "Why!"
The bodies of three victims were found over the weekend, but unstable concrete, hanging steel beams and other damage had forced crews to temporarily suspend the search for the remaining three. They were found Monday morning, and five of the six had been identified by the afternoon, either by authorities or family members.
They included elevator employees John Burke, 24, of Denton, and Ryan Federinko, 21, Curtis Field, 21, and Chad Roberts, 20, all from Atchison. Two grain inspectors also died. They were Travis Keil, 34, an Iraqi war veteran from Topeka with three children who had been a site inspector for 16 years, and Darrek Klahr, 43, of Wetmore.
The memorial for the victims included a wreath of sunflowers, which were part of the theme for the wedding reception Roberts and his fiancee had planned at a local Veterans of Foreign Wars hall. The high school sweethearts planned to marry Nov. 19. They had already bought a home in April and renovated it.
"He was fun, and he couldn't wait to be a husband and a dad," said Roberts' fiancee, Alicia Cobleigh.
She said he liked to hunt and often took her fishing with him.
There have more than 600 explosions at grain elevators, killing more than 250 people and injuring more than 1,000 over the past four decades, 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.
But Tom Tunnell, executive director of the Kansas Grain and Feed Association, the industry's trade group, said he worked at an elevator for nine years and likened the possibility of major accidents to that of airplane crashes.
The cause of Saturday's explosion is still under investigation. Senior Vice President Bob Knief said Bartlett's safety record was "exemplary" and that the company is cooperating with OSHA and other government agencies. He spoke at a news conference and declined to answer questions.
Two people were also injured in the blast. One was in critical condition and the other was listed as serious, said Bob Hallinan, spokesman for The University of Kansas Hospital, said Tuesday morning.
Bartlett Grain Co. worker Joey Arnold, 21, of Atchison, was outside the elevator when the explosion occurred, in a locomotive, pushing grain cars forward. He ran from the blast, escaping without physical injury.
"A fireball shot out the back," he said.
Keil, 34, became a grain inspector after graduating from high school in Salina. His parents, Gary and Ramona Keil, said he became interested in agricultural science in high school and was good enough at grading grain to go to state and national Future Farmers of America contests. They said he occasionally mentioned the potential danger involved but that he enjoyed his job.
"We just love him and miss him and want him back, and it was just wrong timing," said the grain inspector's 12-year-old son, Teagan, crying as he spoke with reporters. "People say you don't know what you have until you lose it, and I've lost him."
Tunnell said grain elevators tend to attract younger employees. The work is "labor intensive," but the wages are "competitive," he said.
An association survey of 40 Kansas elevators found warehouse employees doing harvest work earned an average of $33,300 in wages and bonuses last year. Maintenance workers earned an average of $45,500, and superintendents made about $45,500 to $47,000 a year.
"A lot of these individuals don't necessarily have a four-year degree for something like this, so there are a lot of great local career opportunities that grain elevator facilities provide," said Sarah Bowser, the group's membership services director. "And when you drive across Kansas, you see a local grain elevator almost everywhere."
Field, who collected model tractors, had worked at the Bartlett elevator for nearly a year, while also working on his family's farm. He didn't talk about the potential dangers of working at an elevator, his parents said.
"Until this happened, everything was just good," said Lynn Field, his father. "He enjoyed coming to work, and he enjoyed the people he was working with. And that makes for a nice, happy job."
Also, the father said, "Just trying to get a job right now -- everybody knows it's a tough job market."