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.

How a Tillotson family member escaped the Omaha ax murderer’s attack in 1928

By Charles J. Tillotson

Another tidbit of info on the Tillotson family I wanted to mention was about the attack in November of 1928 by the ax murderer otherwise known as the Chopper.

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Mom used to tell the story of how Grandpa’s sister Mary Alice‘s daughter, Mary, and her husband, Harold “Guy” Stribling, were attacked by the Chopper in the middle of the night in their home near Carter Lake.

Harold was beaten severely about the head with a blunt instrument thought to be an ax, an Mary was also struck by the intruder with the same instrument.

Harold suffered a huge head depression and other lacerations, and Mary was beaten and cut up–but both of them survived.

Mary begged the intruder to save her baby girl, Minerva and somehow talked him into leaving the house.

The intruder, later on named as Jake Bird, agreed to let them all live if Mary would walk with him. It is said that after about three miles of walking, Jake let Mary go.

Jake Bird was accused and convicted of other Chopper murders in and around Omaha.

Both Harold and Mary eventually recovered, but Mom used to say that Guy was never the same.

She knew how to scare us with stories like this. I’m sure it was as a means of making us realize that danger lurks everywhere. She was so right!

Note: Thanks to blogger Brianna Wright for delving into the archives of the Omaha World-Herald to revive this story.

The engineering behind elevator construction began with retaining walls

 

Before electronic scales weighed the grain, weights and a fulcrum did the trick.

Story by Kristen Cart

Nothing is quite so revealing as a vintage book. Ronald Ahrens alerted me to his discovery of an engineering textbook, written by Milo S. Ketchum, about retaining walls and elevator bins. Prof. Ketchum was the dean of the College of Engineering at the University of Colorado (my alma mater) when he wrote The Design of Walls, Bins, and Grain Elevators. First published in 1907 by the Engineering News Publishing Company, of New York, it boasted a second edition in 1911.

From the first few paragraphs, revelations abound. Most eye-opening is the historical context of its publication.

In 1907, surviving Civil War veterans were well-established in their old age. No one yet considered the possibility of the worldwide conflagrations to come. Comanche wars in Texas were still an ugly living memory, more recent to people than the Vietnam War is to us. Grandmothers shared their memories of living in sod houses on the Great Plains. Movies were not yet a national pastime. Airplanes and automobiles were on the drawing board–the Ford Model T would begin production the following year.

When grain was delivered to elevators, it came by barge, rail, or wagon. The business model that drove the elevator boom was in its infancy. Engineers had just begun working with reinforced concrete for bridges, dams, and skyscrapers, but much remained to be done.

Grain transport by truck was a later innovation.

In the introduction, the book gets right to the nuts and bolts of the problem it purports to solve.

A special subset of engineering concerns granular fluids. Grain acts both as a solid and as a fluid–it can be piled in a conical pile because of internal friction which is absent in liquids, but it can flow very much like water. Containing such a fluid requires an understanding of internal pressures–both vertical and outward–that are exerted on a container. All of these considerations boil down to a mathematical model that accurately describes the materials, structures, and shapes required.

The book first examines retaining walls, the simplest structure for containing granular fluids, and proceeds to bins and elevators from there.

Failure to heed safe engineering principles bore disastrous results in Fargo, North Dakota.

Thus we have a textbook that gets into the weeds of that math and physics, ultimately used to teach future designers how to do grain bins. The young men schooled in the years following 1907 would be the builders, engineers, superintendents, and architects who started the concrete elevator building boom.

Early grain-storage leader Buffalo experienced the boom in full

Buffalo 07

By Ronald Ahrens

“Silent crowd watches through the long night hours as workers search mill ruins for more missing bodies,” the Buffalo Times blared in 1913.

As an early leader in grain storage and milling, Buffalo, N.Y., was also a test site (of sorts) for elevator mishaps.

This report, culled from a firefighting blog, shows how the explosion even hit a passing train: 

An explosion devastated a grain elevator, killing at least 17 men and injuring 60 more. The elevator, located at the Husted Milling and Elevating Co. at Elk and Peabody streets, was left in flames after the dust explosion. The engineer of a passing train was killed by the blast that shattered windows, injuring many passengers. A dozen boxcars loaded with grain were also destroyed. Every ambulance in the city responded, but there were so many injuries that the flatbed section of the damaged train was used to transport many of the wounded grain elevator workers. Firemen poured tons of water on the volatile remains all day and into the night, hoping to cool things enough to allow a complete search. Losses were estimated at a half-million dollars.

Grain dust is explosive. After the electrification of elevator mechanisms in the late-1890s, it took a while to figure out that electric motors should be shielded to suppress sparks.

Static electricity can build up around conveyor belts.

Machinery can overheat.

And of course, there’s a reason “No Smoking” warnings are now everywhere in an elevator.

Tillotson Construction Company’s first reinforced concrete elevator, which was built in 1939 at Goltry, Okla., had a dust collection system. Notes in the company records say, “3 H.P. fan, 42″ collector dust bin.”

We lack any more details but are striving to increase our knowledge of dust collection inside elevators.