HAYSVILLE, Kan. (KSNW) — Thursday marked 25 years since the deadly DeBruce Grain elevator, the largest in the world at the time, exploded. For Wichita Fire Department Battalion Chief Chad Winton, a veteran with 27 years of experience, he remembers responding to the scene as if it were yesterday.
Just before the accident, Winton was two years into his career. He had just tried out for the rescue team and was one of three candidates who were accepted. Little did the then-rookie know just days later, everything he had learned up to that point would be put to the ultimate test.
“I remember that morning. It was kind of a cloudy, overcast morning, I think they were predicting some storms, and we just finished PT here, and the call came out, we heard the rumble from here, and we thought maybe it was thunder,” Winton said.
Moments later, Winton would be one of the first firefighters on his way to the scene of the explosion.
“And I could hear, hear the guys up front talking, so I obviously kinda peeked around to look and … the elevator was blown out at both ends, the headhouse, you could see holes in the headhouse from a good half mile away,” Winton said.
As a new member of the rescue team, Winton worked as a gofer.
“[I] started getting buckets to move grain, shovels, lumber, cutting lumber, just stuff to shore up holes and keep grain in place so we could start tunneling and trenching in to get to those victims that we thought were still at the bottom of that elevator,” Winton said.
Winton says the teams worked in 12-hour shifts with the help of several county, state, and out-of-state agencies.
“We had no firm count of how many were missing, so [there] was a little bit of confusion there and how many were actually working, and how many got out on their own,” Winton said. “They were still trying to get a head count … it all happened really quick.”
Tragically, it soon became apparent any hope of finding additional survivors was gone.
The team switched to recovery mode a week later.
“It sticks with you,” Winton said. “That stuff never leaves you … especially as a young, young firefighter, you’re really just kinda overwhelmed at what’s going on, you just, you lean on the older guys, the senior guys with their guidance, and we did what we were told to do.”
Seven people died as a result of that explosion. Ten more people were injured. In February 2001, DeBruce paid nearly $700,000 in fines without admitting fault.