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Published November 01, 2011, 12:35 PM

Families mourn as missing men in grain elevator are confirmed dead

ATCHISON, Kan. — As the van rolled away Monday from Bratlett Grain Co. elevator, 12-year-old Teagan Keil reached in to hand the driver a flower to lay on his father’s body. Even before official word came that Travis Keil and two other missing men were dead from a fireball that exploded through the back of the grain elevator Saturday night, many of the men’s friends and family were ready for the news.

By: Kathleen Pointer, The Kansas City (Mo.) Star

ATCHISON, Kan. — As the van rolled away Monday from Bratlett Grain Co. elevator, 12-year-old Teagan Keil reached in to hand the driver a flower to lay on his father’s body.

Even before official word came that Travis Keil and two other missing men were dead from a fireball that exploded through the back of the grain elevator Saturday night, many of the men’s friends and family were ready for the news.

“If there was any hope, there probably isn’t now,” Cindy Large, a family friend of one of the men, said before dawn Monday.

The community’s fears were confirmed when rescuers pulled the last of the bodies out of the Bartlett Grain Co. elevator facility mid-morning Monday. Half of the 12 people who were working there Saturday night died from the explosion that struck about 7 p.m.

Chad Roberts, 20, of Atchison; Ryan Federinko, 21, of Atchison; and John Burke, 24, of Denton, Kan., were confirmed dead on Sunday. On Monday searchers found the bodies of Keil, 34, of Topeka, Kan.; Curtis Field, 21, of Atchison; and Darrek Klahr, 43, of Wetmore, Kan. Two people remained in the University of Kansas Hospital’s burn unit Monday evening, one in critical condition and the other in serious condition.

Keil, a state grain inspector for 16 years, made weekend trips from his home to Salina, Kan., to see his children, Justine, Teagan and McKinley.

“There is a hole in my heart,” Justine Keil said. “I’m only 15, my brother is 12 and my sister is 8 and now we don’t have a dad.”

On Monday, McKinley, the youngest, gripped a piece of yellow notebook paper with “I love you, Daddy,” written in the center surrounded by signatures and messages from other family members. It was dated 10-30-11, a day before the family got official word that Keil was among the dead.

“I’m going to put it on his grave for him,” she said.

Roberts died exactly three weeks before the wedding ceremony he was planning with his fiancee, 19-year-old Alicia Cobleigh. She was driving back into town and had been hoping to see Roberts before he went to work, but she missed him by about 30 minutes.

Though Alicia’s uncle, who directed traffic outside the facility after the explosion, told her several hours later that Roberts was dead, she continued to gather with families at the Bartlett entrance. She was one of the first people there early Monday.

“Even though I lost someone, I am out here praying for the families who still don’t know,” Cobleigh said. “At least I know.”

The other families knew a few hours later when two vans drove past the vigil with the bodies.

News that searchers had found the last three bodies ended more than 36 hours of uncertainty and frustration.

“It’s hell on a family,” Gary Keil, Travis’ dad, said early Monday. “We’ve just been waiting and waiting.”

It was the waiting that was toughest for many. A structural engineer who looked over the damage from the ground and the air Sunday recommended waiting until daylight before anyone searched the building. It was unstable, and the engineer doubted anyone inside could be alive.

But family and friends pleaded for rescuers to try to save their missing loved ones, or at least to let willing volunteers do the job.

“This is farming country,” said Large, whose daughter Cairo was dating Field. “People are willing to set up lights and get going.”

On Monday, as Kansas State Fire Marshal investigators were assessing damage the grain elevator still smoked in the background beyond memorials people had propped up near the entrance. The vigils were over and families had left the site.

Atchison City Manager Trey Cocking said the community of 11,000 is resilient.

“But it’s a small town; it’s going to take a while,” he said. “A lot of people are feeling shock.”

Bartlett Grain Co. officials released a statement Monday in which senior Vice President Bob Knief said the company’s thoughts and prayers are with the affected families.

“This is a horrible day for the families. It is extremely sorrowful for the rest of us as well,” he said.

Knief said it is far too early to know what caused the blast, but added, “our safety record has been exemplary.”

There have been no Occupational Safety and Health Administration inspections at Bartlett’s Atchison facility in the last five years, but the agency has conducted 49 inspections at other Bartlett grain handling facilities, including several in the Kansas City area, according to an OSHA spokesman.

Bartlett was cited by the agency after the deaths of two workers at two of its other facilities, neither involving explosions. OSHA said a Bartlett maintenance worker died in 2007 after falling from a work platform at the company’s St. Joseph facility and another died in Kansas City in 2002 while operating a forklift.

More than 250 people have died and another 1,000 injured in some 600 grain elevator explosions over the last 40 years, according to federal statistics.

But fatal explosions like the one in Atchison have plummeted in recent years, thanks to an industry-wide initiative started in the late 1970s and tough new federal grain dust regulations put in place in the late 1980s.

After 1977, when 65 people died and 84 were injured in 20 separate grain elevator explosions, the National Grain and Feed Association met in Kansas City to launch an industry-wide safety effort.

OSHA, which is investigating the Atchison explosion, inspected 498 grain handling facilities during the last five years and found at least some safety violations at most of them.

Today, OSHA says, suffocations have become the leading killer at grain bins.

“In just the last couple of years, we’ve seen increased fatalities in that industry from suffocation deaths,” said Peg Seminario, Safety and Health Director for the AFL-CIO. “Workers are often sent into silos to dislodge clumps of grain that are sticking together, and end up being engulfed in grain.”

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(The Star’s Mike McGraw contributed to this report.)

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