WICHITA, Kan. (KSNW) — It was 25 years ago that a tragedy struck the Wichita area. On June 8, 1998, an explosion at the DeBruce Grain elevator, the largest grain elevator in the world at the time, killed seven people and injured 10 others.

DeBruce Grain elevator, June 1998 (KSN Photo)

The grain elevator is near 55th Street South and Hoover Road, southwest of Wichita. It is now owned by Viterra, the new name for Gavilon, which bought DeBruce in 2010.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration found that there was too much grain dust on the day of the explosion, and the dust collection systems were not working. Investigators said some systems had been down for over a year.

The explosion

Grain dust is highly combustible. When it is suspended in the air, it can be explosive.

People in the DeBruce elevator before the explosion told investigators “that the cloud of suspended grain dust was often so thick that during these times one could not see their hand in front of their face.”

OSHA found that the DeBruce grain most likely ignited when a conveyor belt roller jammed, but the belt continued moving over it. The machine heated “well beyond” the level needed for ignition.

The dust ignited in a tunnel and shot in both directions. The resulting explosions shot to the headhouse, a structure in the middle of the silos that extended from the basement to 197 feet above the ground. From there, the blast wave traveled to the galleries along the top of the silos.

The south gallery grain dust had just been cleaned, so the fire went out. But the north gallery explosions continued into empty silos, down into the basement, where it again went several directions, including north to the exit. As the explosions traveled underneath silos, they also rose through the silos and blew off many silo tops.

The victims

The explosions killed seven men who worked for either DeBruce or Labor Source Incorporated.

  • Jose Luis Duarte, 41, DeBruce
  • Howard Goin, 65, DeBruce
  • Lanny Owen, 43, DeBruce
  • Victor Manuel Castaneda, 26, LSI
  • Raymundo Diaz-Vela, 23, LSI
  • Jose Prajedes Ortiz, 24, LSI
  • Noel Najera, 25, LSI

Ten men were injured. Three worked for DeBruce, five worked for LSI, one for Dusenbery Trucking, and one for Rob Heimerman Trucking.

Ten people were on the DeBruce property adjoining the elevator. Most of them helped with immediate search-and-rescue efforts. OSHA says they were also helpful with the investigation.

Search and rescue

OSHA said the DeBruce Grain Emergency Action Plan “existed only on paper and had neither been described to nor rehearsed with workers.” Investigators also said there was an absence of documented work assignments, which made it difficult to know where the workers would be.

First responders arrived at DeBruce Grain within 10 minutes of the explosion. But they had trouble finding out how many people were in the structure and where they should start looking for them.

There was also concern that there might be more explosions. So fire and emergency personnel worked with caution, “even in rescuing and treating badly injured survivors.”

There were many challenges because of the immense size of the elevator and limited access to some of the damaged areas.

Some of the severely injured made it to the top of the 120-foot-tall silos. Others were helped to the top by rescue crews. From there, a large crane sent over by a local company assisted with getting them down. A U.S. Army helicopter from Fort Riley arrived to lift an injured worker from a gallery roof. The rescues took about four hours.

But there were still some people who had not been found. The day after the explosions, President Bill Clinton declared Sedgwick County a federal emergency, which allowed the Federal Emergency Management Agency to send 20 trained searchers and 42 support personnel to help local rescue crews.

They were initially looking for survivors. But as days passed, it became a search for bodies. It took five weeks before the last victim’s body was found.

The investigation

The Grain Elevator Explosion Investigation Team (GEEIT) handled the investigation into the DeBruce Grain explosion. The team arrived two weeks after the disaster.

The investigators analyzed physical evidence from the wreckage. They looked for marks, patterns, residue and scorching. It helped them determine where the explosions started and then traveled. The physical evidence also included studying the injuries. Plus, the investigators said they observed a massive amount of grain dust throughout the building.

The team also interviewed the injured and uninjured workers, plus people who had been around the elevator before the blast. They also talked to three people who heard the explosions.

One person about a half mile away was outside when he heard a loud explosion. He turned toward the elevator and saw black smoke at ground level. He saw a fireball shoot out the side and above the headhouse a split second later. He said it shot up about twice the height of the headhouse, approximately 500 feet.

Another person who was in his home about seven-and-a-half miles from the elevator heard a series of at least five explosions. He said the blasts woke his 18-year-old son.

The findings

OSHA blamed DeBruce for “deliberate” corporate decisions. The investigators said DeBruce allowed massive amounts of fuel to continually be created and distributed throughout the elevator, delayed repairing grain dust control systems, and abandoned preventive maintenance of equipment.

These three factors — voluntarily exercised by DeBruce in opposition to widely-known and recognized methodology for explosion prevention — caused the catastrophe. All three, which were well within DeBruce cognizance and control, made the disaster an inevitability.”

Occupational Safety and Health Administration

In February 2001, DeBruce agreed to pay $685,000 in fines while admitting no fault. The government had planned to take the company to trial at the end of that month.

DeBruce called the government’s case a ‘misdirected investigation’ but said it could no longer afford the time and resources needed to fight it. DeBruce said it was paying the fine to avoid putting the victims’ families through the pain of a trial.