1981 report: 1 dies, 2 critical as Bellwood explosion destroys headhouse

Lincoln Journal Star, April 8, 1981

BELLWOOD–One man died under tons of grain and concrete and two others were listed in critical condition Wednesday in an explosion that ripped through the Farmers Co-Op grain elevator late Tuesday afternoon, authorities said.

The body of Gary Roh, 20, of Linwood was pulled from the debris Tuesday by rescue teams working under floodlights and using heavy equipment, including a bulldozer.

Hospital and elevator officials said Joe Stastny, 58, a rural Bellwood farmer who was unloading grain when the blast was triggered, and elevator employee Larry Navrkal, 28, of Bellwood were in critical condition Wednesday morning at Lincoln’s St. Elizabeth Community Health Center’s burn center.

“It was a pretty big boom,” the elevator’s grain department manager Bob Bell said in a telephone interview Wednesday. “I was here in the office, which is about 50 yards from the elevator. It looked like night outside and we just dived on the floor until the debris stopped flying. Then we called the emergency number.”

Roh was reported missing after the blast, which destroyed parts of the elevator and hurled huge chunks of concrete into nearby streets and homes. Elevator officials had hoped Roh might be trapped alive, but optimism faded as the hours passed.

His body was found about 9:45 p.m.–more than five hours after the blast–in an alleyway pit inside the elevator where Stastny was unloading grain.

John Navrkal of Bellwood, an elevator supervisor and Larry Navrkal’s father, also was injured, but did not require hospitalization.

“We had a farmer (Stastny) in the elevator in a truck unloading grain,” said co-op office manager Maxine McDonald. “We had three employees there, too. The farmer was covered with grain, and they had to dig him out.”

Rescue workers used the Jaws of Life to remove him from his truck.

Witnesses said the blast apparently was triggered somewhere in the south end near Stastny’s unloading truck.

Mrs. McDonald said the 1.5 million-bushel structure was about half full of a mixture of grains and that there had been no fires. She said damage was extensive.

The blast’s cause had not been determined Wednesday morning, and damage estimates were unavailable.

Bell said insurance investigators, State Patrol officers and State Fire Marshall’s office investigators were at the scene Wednesday to try to determine the blast’s cause and whether the facility is structurally sound enough to remove remaining grain.

State Fire Marshall Wally Barnett said Wednesday the cause never may be determined “because it went from one end to the other, blew out the top and even blew out some of the bins.”

Joe Wilson, who owns a barbershop near the elevator, said there were holes measuring 25-by-50 feet in the elevator’s walls.

“The north headhouse is completely blown off,” he said. “A tank on the northeast side of the elevator was split from top to bottom.”

Wilson said the blast shook the area around the elevator, damaging homes on both sides and sending concrete fragments flying for two blocks.

“The house on the east side was riddled with concrete chunks the size of basketballs, and windows were broken,” he said. “Another house a half a block away has holes the side of footballs in the walls.”

The damage to the elevator was so extensive that at one point, the search for Roh was called off because rescue workers feared moving the grain would cause the damaged structure to collapse. Mrs. McDonald said digging resumed after a structural engineer brought in by the co-op’s insurance company examined the elevator.

There were no reports of other serious injuries.

Bellwood’s elevator is the third Nebraska elevator to explode in 1 1/2 months. In late February, an explosion rocked the Southeast Nebraska Farmers Co-op in Beatrice, injuring three men. Then slightly more than two weeks ago, a series of explosions and fires extensively damaged the McMaster Grain Co. in South Sioux City. No one was injured, but damage was estimated at $1 million.

Bellwood, a community of 361 residents, had another explosion Feb. 19 when an explosion and fire at the Farmer’s Co-op service station injured three employees and flattened the garage. None of the men were injured seriously, and the station was back in business soon after the explosion.

Mrs. McDonald said she had worked at the Bellwood elevator for 24 years, and there was another explosion there in 1959.

“But it wasn’t anywhere like this one,” she said. “We are just all in a state of shock. This is a terrible thing–one that you hope you never have to see again.”

Thank you to Susan Allen for providing this article.

1959 news photo shows rounded headhouse of Tillotson's Bellwood, Neb., elevator

Lincoln Journal Star, Saturday, March 28, 1959

BELLWOOD BLAST–A basement explosion in the Bellwood grain elevator knocked out windows and a door at the top of the tubes. One spokesman speculated it might have been a dust blast, sparked by a hot motor. Two men were injured.

Editors’ note: Thank you to Susan Allen for providing the clipping.

History of Tillotson’s massive Bellwood, Neb., elevator includes details of 1959 explosion that injured two

 

By Ronald Ahrens

At 320,000 bushels, Bellwood, Neb., and Canyon, Tex. were the second-biggest jobs for Tillotson Construction Co. when they were built in 1950, some 12 years after the company’s first elevator of reinforced concrete.

There was the early, huge 350,000-bushel facility at Farnsworth, Tex., in 1945.

Otherwise, the 310,000-bushel elevator at Dalhart, Tex., in 1949, was next-largest.

We now find this welcome history of the Bellwood elevator complex–which presents slightly different figures from those in the company record–from a local source:

The first concrete elevator was built in 1950 with a capacity of 324,000 bushels and a cost of $141,000. The first addition followed in 1954 costing $133,000 and holding 344,000 bushels. The second annex of 343,000 bushels followed in 1958 with a price tag of $116,000. The third annex, being the north elevator with the headhouse, was built the next year for $179,000 and has a capacity of 290,000 bushels. Twenty years later, in 1979, two large diameter tanks each holding 165,000 bushels, were built at a total cost of $333,000. This brings the companies (sic) licensed storage capacity to 1,685,000 bushels.

As reported in the previous post, we found the Frontier Cooperative location to be surviving quite nicely after 70 years and two explosions.

Here is this detail of the first one:

An explosion ripped through the first concrete elevator on March 27, 1959 causing considerable damage to the basement and headhouse areas. Seriously injured in this explosion were Jim Mick and Walker Meyers, both employees of the Farmers Co-op Grain Co.

The original house was built with 2,436 cubic yards of reinforced concrete and 20.3 yards of plain concrete for the hoppers.

Reinforcing steel amounted to 143.3 tons, which worked out to 115.3 pounds per cubic yard.

 

The structure sits on a main slab of 66 x 77.5 feet. We work that out to 5,115 square feet, but the construction details in the company records note, “Act. Outside on Ground” and give the figure of 4,806 square feet.

The reinforced concrete and steel weighed in at 5,069 tons, and the tanks could accommodate 9,600 tons of grain. Incorporating other factors like 28 tons of structural steel and machinery, as well as 40.3 tons of concrete for the hoppers, the gross weight loaded was an impressive 14,964 tons.

All this massiveness was quite a testament of progress. We have to remember that just 12 years before–with the period of inactivity during World War Two intervening–the Tillotsons were building cribbed wooden elevators.

The main slab covers a pit of 15 feet 9 inches deep.

Way above the pit, the cupola (headhouse) was quite a specimen at 23 feet wide, 63.75 feet long, and 39 feet high–identical to Canyon and pretty comparable to the 300,000-bushel elevators that were also built in 1950 at Burlington, Colo., and Hartley, Texas. All of these elevators were built on the same plan that was original to Bellwood, yet the tanks at Burlington and Hartley rose to 115 feet instead of 120 feet and the cupolas were five feet taller than those at Bellwood and Canyon.

The single-leg Bellwood house boasted 72-inch-diameter head and boot pulleys that were 166 feet apart; the 14-inch, six-ply Calumet belt stretched an impressive 360 feet. The record shows that the belt’s cups, of 12 x 6 inches, were spaced 8.5 inches “o.c.”

Powered by a 40-horsepower Howell drive, the head pulley could turn a 42 rpm. It provided a theoretical leg capacity of 7,920 bushels per hour. Actual leg capacity at 80 percent of theoretical used 32 horsepower for 6,350 bushels per hour.

The 1981 explosion destroyed the cupola and, we presume, all its contents. We hope to find period photos of before and after.

Records show the 1954 annex with capacity of 340,000 bushels. It consumed 2,129 cubic yards of reinforced concrete and 119.5 tons of steel.

The 24-inch-thick slab–same thickness as at the main house–spread over 45.5 x 107 feet for “Act. Outside on Gd.” of 4,569 square feet.

The 10 tanks of 20 feet in diameter reaching 130 feet high required 4,377.5 tons of reinforced concrete and yielded a gross loaded weight (with 10,200 tons of grain) of 15,628.5 tons.

The cupola, or run, atop this annex was 13 feet wide, 100 feet long, and 8.4 feet high.

Top and bottom belts were 30 inches wide and moved at 600 feet per minute. A 10-horsepower drive at top and 7-horse drive at bottom enabled movement of 9,000 bushels per hour.

As we saw for ourselves, the second annex, a 1958 job, bears manhole covers embossed with the Tillotson Construction Co. stamp. Alas, our records stop at 1955.

The headhouse is long gone, but the Frontier Cooperative elevator at Bellwood, Neb., may be Tillotson’s largest build

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By Ronald Ahrens

We arrived on a quiet Saturday afternoon at the Frontier Cooperative elevator in Bellwood, Neb., knowing a 1981 explosion had taken off the headhouse. By the account of Uncle Tim Tillotson, we were also alerted to the possibility of another explosion there in the late-1950s.

Nebraska 2020Nevertheless, we expected to see an elevator with a replacement structure at its crown.

We found an impressive complex: mighty, smart-looking, and meticulously maintained. Yet it operates with external legs to serve the huge complex–no headhouse whatsoever. The leg over the main house is mantis-like and a little spooky. 

Of course, there was no hint whether the original headhouse was a squared-off rectangle or a curved volume in keeping with the characteristic Tillotson style that was developing after World War Two.

Tillotson Construction Co. built the main house, a 320,000-bushel elevator, in 1950 and followed up with a 340,000-bushel annex in 1954. The main house followed an original plan with eight tanks (silos) of 20 feet in diameter and reaching 120 feet high.

There was the typical central driveway, 13 x 17 feet, for unloading trucks.

Other notes in the company record say “5 bin dist. under scale” and “Prov. for hopper scale.” There were 22 bins and a dust bin.

The 1954 annex, also on an original plan, featured 10 tanks of 20 feet in diameter and reaching 130 feet high. It had a basement, 30-inch belt conveyors, and a tripper.

We also found the Tillotson name embossed on the manhole covers of the second annex, which appears to match the first annex in size and capacity. But company records make no mention of this second annex.

Nevertheless, it appears possible to credit Tillotson with an even 1 million bushels of capacity.

A close look at surfaces on the main house shows patchwork that must represent filled holes from the big blowout.

While preparing this post, I phoned Frontier Cooperative branch manager Justin Riha, who knew of this 1981 explosion.

The elevator works fine with the external legs. “I think it’s better,” Riha said. 

Overall capacity at the location is 2.4-million bushels, a tidy amount at such a small town.

A 1981 explosion at Bellwood, Neb., blew the headhouse of a Tillotson elevator to pieces

profileIn a previous post, Uncle Tim Tillotson recalled an elevator repair job at Bellwood, Neb., after an explosion in 1959, where Tillotson Construction Co. built a 320,000-bushel elevator on an original plan in 1950. 

Nebraska 2020Company records also note construction of a 340,000-bushel annex in 1954. And we discovered the Tillotson name on the manhole covers of a second, equal-sized annex our visit on January 4, 2020.

Meanwhile, as the following story details, we have found evidence of a subsequent mishap at Bellwood.

United Press International, Wednesday, April 8, 1981

BELLWOOD, Neb.–One man was killed and two others were critically injured in an explosion at a grain elevator that hurled debris over a wide area.

Rescue workers retrieved the body of Gary Roh, 20, from a 10-foot pit about five hours after the explosion at the Bellwood Farmer Co-op Tuesday afternoon.

Hospital authorities said Larry Navrkal, 28, an elevator employee, and Joe Stastny, 58, an area farmer, were in critical condition at St. Elizabeth’s Community Health Center.

Witnesses to the blast said it apparently was triggered somewhere in the south end near the unloading truck. The explosion shook the entire elevator, ripped out one wall and threw the headhouse, a structure on top of the elevator, completely off.

Roh, an elevator employee, was helping unload a farmer’s truck near the site where the explosion was apparently triggered.

The David City Banner-Press reported Stastny was inside the cab of a truck being unloaded inside the south end of the elevator when the explosion occurred. Rescue workers used the “jaws of life” to remove him from the truck which remained buried inside the elevator.

Roh’s body was discovered near Stastny’s truck just as authorities were ready to halt the search. The elevator remained standing but was riddled with holes. Authorities considered calling in a building inspector to determine the stability of the structure.

Bellwood and David City fire officials said there was not much of a fire after the explosion, which also damaged nearby houses and businesses. Rubble was spread for blocks and vehicles in the area were damaged by flying objects.

Workers from the state Fire Marshal’s office and the Nebraska State Patrol supervised the area Tuesday night. They said they didn’t know the cause of the blast, and there was no damage estimate available.

Although feeling the strain, Tillotson’s elegant 1948 elevator stands tall at Richland, Neb.

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By Ronald Ahrens

The handsome 52,000-bushel elevator that Tillotson Construction Co. built in 1948 at Richland, Neb., has “pretty much turned into an OSHA nightmare.” 

Nebraska 2020So reported Todd Henke, who manages the Richland location for Cooperative Supply Inc.

“They’re so concerned about dust explosions,” Henke said. And it’s no surprise, not “with the electrical and how they [elevators] were built.” Keeping clean inside is a big emphasis. 

The old elevator–rated at 3,169 tons gross weight when fully loaded–was full at the time of our phone call on Feb. 3. Henke described its intermittent use, which he attributed as much to limited capacity as to general creakiness.

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Rose Ann Fennessy paces off the driveway on the chilly morning of Jan. 4.

The leg, for example, is “very slow,” running at 2,000 bushels per hour. Original specifications indicate a theoretical maximum of 5,700 bushels and actual capacity (80 percent of theoretical) of 4,555 bushels.

“If we max it out we maybe could do 2,500,” Henke said, pointing out the elevator was built in the day of 100-bushel wagons and 300-bushel trucks. It’s more common for today’s truck to bear up to 1,200 bushels, making for tight accommodations in the 13-foot-wide driveway.

The heavy rigs, as well as massive trains rumbling by, shake and stress the whole building.

And days of loading rail cars at the siding have ended.

“Years ago the main problem was loading six cars. Now that feature, we had to take that spout down from cracking.” The insurance company requested it. 

Not to mention that the scale of things has changed so much. “These days, if you don’t load 100 cars, it isn’t worth doing.” 

Do people ever comment about the cupola (headhouse) being rounded at the south end? 

“I’ve been here a very long time and don’t notice it,” Henke said. He started as a bookkeeper in 1990. “I imagine they kept that north side more square because of the leg.”

Tillotson was still experimenting with rounding the cupola in 1948 and gradually extended this design to general use.

Our other question concerned the note in company records saying, “Water.” We take this to mean groundwater seeped into the 10-foot 6-inch excavation. So is there any problem with moisture in the basement?

Henke said no–another indication of a well-built Tillotson elevator continuing to do the job.

 

In Richland, Neb., Tillotson made a handsome, early experiment with a curved headhouse

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By Ronald Ahrens

Located between Schuyler and Columbus on U.S. 30, Richland is a blowing-away little hamlet with nothing of interest save for the handsome grain elevator at 310 E. Front Street. Rose Ann Fennessy and I pulled in just before lunch on Jan. 4 to look it over.

Nebraska 2020Cooperative Supply Inc. operates the location, and the elevator appears to be in good working order. 

Records show this as one of the first four elevators Tillotson Construction Co., of Omaha, put up in Nebraska. Minatare, in Scotts Bluff County, was built in 1941. It has been documented in our blog by Kristen Cart.

To the far northwest, Rushville came along in 1947.

Polk and Richland, built in 1948, were based on the plan of Goltry, Okla.–Tillotson’s first elevator of reinforced concrete, put up nine years earlier.

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Other Tillotson elevators of 1948 were in Moscow, Rolla, and Montezuma, Kan.; Manchester, Okla.; Springfield, Colo.; and Cavalier, N.D. 

The Goltry plan as modified for Richland included four tanks (silos) 12 feet in diameter rising 86 feet in height. (The tanks at Polk were 10 feet taller.) Richland’s shorter tanks meant 52,000 bushels capacity instead of 60,000. This is one of Tillotson’s smallest elevators. Eva, Okla., of 1947, is the smallest at 13,500 bushels.

But Richland, unlike Cedar Bluffs, Neb., was a full-featured elevator. The center driveway measured 13 x 18 feet, and six bins were positioned over the drive. In all, there were 14 bins and a dust bin.

A full basement, electrical room, and motorized manlift were included. One curiosity is that we did not find manholes on the outside of the tanks, so there were no embossed plates to offer their confirmation of the builder’s identity. We suspect the cleanout holes are located on the interior, as at Booker, Tex., and elsewhere.

After 1946, our records omit information about cost, but we do know that Goltry (without an electrical room) was a $21,522.97 total-cost job less commission.

One note on Richland says only, “Water.” In the Platte Valley, this is no surprise and means that the modest pit depth of 10 feet 6 inches was likely an ordeal to achieve, requiring much pumping.

A second note is significant for architectural progress. “One End Round on Cup.,” it says. As we see, indeed, the cupola (headhouse) does have a rounded end on the south. We have tried to pin down the origin of Tillotson’s signature design, and now we know Richland is a contender for the honor.

The cupola’s windows each have a lintel to add character.

Cavalier, also a 1948 job, was “Winter Const.,” according to a note, leading us not only to shudder at the thought of a continuous pour in a northern Great Plains winter but also to surmise that what was learned at Richland was applied in full at Cavalier. The photo shows a fully rounded cupola.

It was rewarding to find the significant Richland elevator in good condition. The next post will include more specifications.