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.

A reader recalls elevator construction and the recent explosion in Hinton, Iowa

By Michael Pelelo

I was born in 1954, the same year the Tillotson headhouse was slipped in Hinton, Iowa. I can see it from my late parents’ farm south of Merrill, Iowa, where I grew up. I knew several local farmers who worked that slip in ’54.


The Hinton elevator in July 2015. Photos by Kristen Cart.

Within the last month or so, there was an explosion in that workhouse and it looks like the tank walls were breached, so it will probably have to come down. I spent many days in the 70s and 80s working in that complex and remember the old layout quite well.

In the 70s, as a young man, I became a millwright and worked for an outfit out of Oyens, Iowa, that built jump-form silos. Later I worked for D&B Construction out of Sioux City and helped slip workhouses in Oyens and Maurice, Iowa, and the set of tanks to the south of the Tillotson workhouse in Hinton.

I have probably been in every elevator in northwest Iowa at one point or another, and I worked as a millwright out of the sheet metal local, too. A lot of the guys who worked for Dad Sherrill and D&B Construction got their start at Younglove Construction out of Sioux City, which is still slipping elevators today after over a hundred years.

I am now retired and just this afternoon went to look at a pair of very large tanks that are being jump-formed in Sloan, Iowa, by Hoffman Construction. That outfit goes back a long way slipping and jump-forming elevators.

Way back when I was doing that type of work, old guys would come around every day and gawk at what was going on. Now, I am one of the old guys gawking!

* * *

DSC_0455My days in construction are ones I remember fondly, even though the work was hard and dangerous and the hours were long.

One of the companies I worked for was involved in a three-fatality accident at the Ritter, Iowa, Co-op in 1976. We were building 24-foot and 30-foot jump-form silos all up and down the Floyd Valley. I was working on the 24-foot forms in Sheldon, Iowa, south of Ritter at the time.

The March 17 explosion at Hinton was in the main workhouse, which is the Tillotson structure built in 1954.

Back in the ’70s and ’80s, I was very involved with work on several structures in that complex with two different construction companies. Much has been added since I last worked around there. From pictures in the media, it appears that at least one or more of the tanks in the Tillotson structure have ruptured, as I can see grain spilling out in some photos.

A freak accident led to the fatal fall of Bill Russell’s son

The Aurora Coop's Murphy elevator and annex. Jim Russell died in a fall during the elevator's construction.

The Aurora Cooperative’s Murphy elevator and annex. Jim Russell died in a fall during the elevator’s construction. Photo by Kurt Glinn.

Story by Ronald Ahrens

My uncle, Tim Tillotson, recalls some details of the death of a son of Bill Russell, a superintendent for Tillotson Construction Company. Russell was the father of eight sons in all. The accident occurred in the 1950s.

Although he can’t remember which job [it was the Aurora Cooperative’s Murphy location in central Nebraska] or when it happened, Uncle Tim, who was not present at the time, recalls from on-the-scene reports that two of Russell’s sons were running the night crew.

The two were working with a storey pole, a measuring device of ancient origin. In this case, the storey pole was a metal tape, and it was used to verify the height of vertical sections. One son was on top, fifty-five feet up, feeding the tape down to the other on the ground.

“It was blowing in the wind, and he was letting it out,” Uncle Tim says. “The wind caught it to some power lines, and it gave him a jolt.”

A fall to the ground ensued.

“One side of him hit the Georgia buggy, which kind of spun him around. He was conscious on the ground, saying he thought he’d broken a leg. But by the time the ambulance got there, he’d died of shock.”

Uncle Tim suggests the likelihood of a brain hemorrhage as well.

Hanging by a thread on the ‘wrecking-out’ scaffold, a young workman faces mortality

By Charles J. Tillotson

Editor’s note: Uncle Chuck here recalls one of the more harrowing experiences of his young life, when he was building grain elevators for Tillotson Construction Company. It occurred on what is called a wrecking scaffold–or to be more precise, during the scramble off one heading into the void.

From left, Tim Tillotson, Chuck Tillotson, and La Rose Tillotson Hunt, posing in June 2012 in Victorville, California.

From left, Tim Tillotson, Chuck Tillotson, and La Rose Tillotson Hunt, posing in June 2012 in Victorville, California.

When the slip-form process reached the intended height of construction, all wood form-work and other equipment and devices were removed from the structure via an external hoist.

The final portion of the demolition process, the removal of the wood forms, involved the most difficult and dangerous part of the operation, that being the “wrecking out” of the wood forms and decking material that is, by design, trapped inside each of the grain tanks.

All of this wooden material must be removed, and it must be done from the inside.

This is accomplished by utilizing a temporary platform, or wrecking-out scaffold, suspended within each tank.

Elevator design preconceived the need for a ‘wrecking-out’ platform

In preparation for the building of a temporary platform, cutout sleeves and manhole forms are strategically placed to allow cable and scaffold planking to be inserted into the tanks after the concrete roof deck has been poured. The cutouts, usually four round holes per tank, are each large enough in diameter for insertion of a cable with a preconstructed loop end.

Via the manhole, planks are slid through to a workman who is suspended on a rope with a bosun’s chair, allowing him to have a hands-free position.

He takes the planking being passed down to him and extends the two major beam planks through the hanging cable loops.

After the beam planks are in place, scaffold planking is installed perpendicular to the beams in such a way as to create a solid plank platform.

The final scaffold then becomes a square platform suspended in a round tank.

The void on each side of the scaffold is used for lowering or throwing the wood material into the tank’s dark abyss. After all the overhead wrecking has been accomplished, another team gains access to the tank’s bottom via a manhole in the side of the tank at or near ground level.

The noon whistle as harbinger of doom

This description of building the wrecking-out scaffold sets the stage on another personal experience with the perils of constructing grain elevators.

It took place when I was assigned duty on the wrecking-out scaffold. The morning of labor with two other workmen had passed without incident, and when the town’s noon whistle blew, we three stopped for lunch.

The beginning of Tillotson Construction's job in Flagler, Colo.

The beginning of Tillotson Construction’s job in Flagler, Colo.

Typically, rather than have the wrecking crew go through the process of crawling or being lifted back up through the manholes and then go in reverse to gain access to the platform again, the workmen just brought their lunches down to the platform and ate them there.

As we sat on the planking in this semi-dark and dank grain tank, eating our lunches and telling war stories, I heard a plunking noise that sounded like someone had dropped a rock onto the scaffold. It seemed to come from the corner behind me. I didn’t pay much attention and soon rejoined the important conversation taking place.

About five minutes later, I noticed another similar sound and asked the other two workmen if they had heard it, too. Neither of them had. They went back to talking. But within minutes another “rock” hit the scaffold and simultaneously one corner tilted down.

A precarious situation soon becomes a mortal threat

We suddenly realized the nut fasteners of the cable clamps–which were U-shaped and bolted around the main cable drop and the end of the cable loop–had somehow unwound. (Two cable clamps were used per loop, each clamp having two fastener nuts turned sufficiently tight to form a bond on the loop.)

So only one nut remained on the cable clamp to hold the loop and that corner of the scaffold.

To save ourselves from this sinking ship, we quickly helped one another by doing a foot-up maneuver, with the first man out through the manhole above. Once he crawled to safety on the deck, he reached down for the next one and yanked him through.

I had been sitting the furthest away from the manhole, so I was the last man out.

Again, as with my previously described narrow escape (see the link below), God was watching after me.

Just as I punched through to safety on the roof, I heard the cable loop fail and the scaffolding crash into the tank’s deep dark recesses.

Why worker safety was a secondary consideration

In those days, there were many similar incidents that occurred during the construction process.

Contributing to the lack of safety precautions was the use of unskilled labor. Most of it came from the surrounding farm community, and these men had no background in construction.

Lives were lost, and assumptions were made that this would occur, as the ultimate goal was building grain storage as quickly as possible. Safeguarding life and limb took a secondary position to that effort.