DustEx Research's Rose Keefe shares what a 100-year-old explosion can teach us about modern dust safety.
July 14, 2022 By Rose Keefe
Four grain elevators in the U.S. were destroyed by dust explosions between May 20 and Sept. 13, 1919, killing 70 people and injuring 60 others.
Three of these disasters – Milwaukee Works, Port Colborne, and the Douglas Starch Works explosion – are referred to in regional and scientific studies of grain dust explosions. The fourth one is only now becoming the subject of investigation.
The Murray Grain Elevator was destroyed by a dust explosion on Sept. 13, 1919, killing 14 men and seriously injuring 10 others. The worst part is that it could have been prevented: the elevator failed two inspections within one month and was deemed ‘dangerous’ on both occasions. When management finally took notice, it was too late.
In this article, we tell the story of the Murray Grain Elevator explosion and explore what went wrong. As you’ll see, the events that led up to the disaster continue to replicate themselves today, and not just in the grain handling industry. Every year several people are injured and even killed in explosions at sawmills, pellet production plants, and woodworking facilities, and if lessons aren’t learned, more lives and livelihoods are likely to be lost.
September 5, 1919: Forewarning
In his role as an inspector for U.S. Grain Corporation, J.O. Reed visited grain elevators across the country and reviewed their safety standards. In the years after the war, Reed had seen a lot of facilities in need of repair, but the Murray Grain Elevator worried him.
Built in Kansas City in 1905, this elevator was owned by the Federal Grain Company and situated north of the Armour-Swift-Burlington bridge. The main building and two storage tanks contained modern grain processing equipment. Even though its designers and owners touted the elevator as fireproof, Reed knew that in its current condition, it was not explosion-proof.
He made the following observations in his notebook:
- Only the floors were clean. Overhead, dust had accumulated on the flanges of the ceiling I-beams: in some places, the piles were so high that any further build-up tumbled to the floor.
- There was an excessive amount of dust in the shaft containing the stairways, elevator, and main rope drive.
- Dust was piled in the tunnels leading underneath the storage tanks.
- The basement was especially dusty, especially on the trunking of the dust collector. This dust was, Reed noted, “very black, old, fine and dry.” There was a huge accumulation of dust under one large machine: workmen had swept around but not underneath it.
- The dust was several inches thick on and underneath two grain cleaning machines located in the northern end of the working floor. The switch and fuse boxes were very dusty.
Equally prominent were potential ignition sources:
- There was a hot bearing on the countershaft driving the fan on the top floor, with a great amount of oil on the journal.
- One of the extension cords on the top floor was in poor condition and worn at the socket. Not too far away was a partially-filled fire extinguisher.
- Carbon filaments were used for lighting everywhere in the plant. There was no protection on electric light bulbs (almost all these bulbs were extremely dusty) and no vapour-proof bulbs were used.
He was told that the plant was only dirty because the fan on the dust collecting system had broken down just before his visit. Reed didn’t buy it- he had seen the fan in action. Moreover, he was aware that accumulating this much dust would take months, not just hours.
Angry and concerned, he decided to show the workers what could happen if these conditions continued. Reed ordered a temporary halt to operations before lighting an oil-soaked piece of waste in the engine room. When he dropped the burning waste on the floor, he shook a dusty sack over it, causing a small explosion and flash fire.
There is no record of how the superintendent or workers responded, but Reed later recalled that he told them to “clean up or shut up.” (One newspaper alleged that he actually said “clean up or blow up.”) At the end of his report, he wrote, “This plant is dangerous and even though fireproof, will explode if its present condition is permitted to exist.”
Another inspection followed on Sept. 12. The report noted that plant maintenance was still poor and recommendations from the Sept. 5 inspection were yet to be implemented.
Sept. 13, 1919: disaster strikes
That morning, a flurry of cleaning activity began at the Murray Grain Elevator. The second inspection report had been especially scathing and the dangerous housekeeping issues could no longer be ignored.
The cleaning crew was still at work when, at around 2:10 p.m., a maintenance man named Charlie Tatum noticed blue flames shooting out of electric light wires while he was cleaning dust and dirt out of Boot No. 3. Tatum had no time to react before he was caught in what he later called a ‘cyclone’ that tore off his clothing and covered him in debris.
The explosion blew out sections of the main building’s walls and roof and damaged the huge grain tanks on the west side of the property. Timbers and pieces of terra-cotta brick fell upon the structure containing the elevator’s power sources and injured people inside. The impact even caused nearby homes to shake, breaking windows and cracking plaster walls.
There were around 40 men in the elevator at the time. Some were blown clear of the building while others staggered from the ruins with their clothing burned off. One man found himself in a wheat field 350 feet away.
J.D. Snowdon, an inspector for the Missouri State Weighing and Inspection Department, was reviewing weighing operations on the 10th floor when it happened.
“We were (at) the south end of the building when the explosion occurred,” he later told the Kansas City Star. “There seemed to be a great tearing and rending of everything in the building and then we were enveloped by a blue flame. It seemed to stay there for perhaps one and a half minutes and then disappeared.”
He and another man who had been working nearby managed to reach a damaged fire escape and scramble their way to safety.
“There were two men working on the floor above us,” Snowdon said sadly. “I don’t know what happened to them.”
Snowdon and his companion were luckier than others. One young man, Charles Stephenson, was working with two other men on top of an 80-foot-tall grain tank when the explosion burned their clothing and seared their flesh, leaving terrible injuries.
Firefighting efforts were hindered by the fact that the nearest hydrant was 8,000 feet away. It was a shocking oversight that may have been due to the elevator’s so-called ‘fireproof’ construction. The fire department was unable to run a sufficiently long hose connection to the burning buildings until 3:30 p.m., at which point the damage had intensified. Thirty grain-filled box cars standing near the south end of the elevator also caught fire.
Once the flames were under control, the intense heat of the debris prevented rescuers from searching for missing men. To accelerate cooling, firefighters ran a stream of water through the tunnel that ran under the first floor of the work building.
During the ensuing search, the list of dead and injured grew, until it finally stopped at 14 deaths and 10 injuries. H.J. Smith, president of the Federal Grain Company, which owned the Murray Grain Elevator, estimated the loss in product and property at $650,000 dollars. It was a disaster of such magnitude that an investigation immediately followed.
Looking for answers
Three men were appointed to head the investigation:
- Dr. J.D. Price, engineer in charge of the Bureau of Chemistry in the Department of Agriculture. Dr. Price was also the director of a campaign to eliminate the dust explosions in mills and elevators.
- J.O. Reed, the investigator whose warnings were heeded too late.
- Vernon Fitzsimmons, who headed the government’s ant-dust explosion campaign in the Northwestern District.
After inspecting the damage and interviewing witnesses, they concluded that the explosion originated in the basement. It propagated up through the manlift tower on the side of the elevator and blew out the walls with unusually aggressive force. Pieces of the 16-inch concrete wall were found dozens and, in some cases, hundreds of feet from the site and the entire working shed was blown away, leaving a demolished grain dryer behind.
On September 19, the coroner’s jury ruled that the cause of the explosion was unknown. Charlie Tatum repeated his story of seeing blue flames coming out of electric light wires, but there were also allegations that someone had lit a cigarette in an area not designated for smoking.
No one would be held criminally liable for the disaster, but those who lost loved ones may have taken comfort in the fact that it inspired change. Grain elevators that previously lacked sweepers quickly hired them while those with a cleaning crew engaged additional men in order to keep the plant in as good a condition as possible.
There was also renewed activity among fire underwriters and insurance professionals who had considered fireproofing to be sufficient protection for grain elevators. Now they were re-inspecting facilities for dust explosion hazards.
One inspector, H. J. Helmkamp, later wrote:
“The terminal elevators in Omaha and Kansas City, with the possible exception of one or two, I found to be the cleanest that I have ever found in any one locality and I think that this is the one big improvement which can be said to result from the Kansas City explosion. Nearly all recommendations were gladly received and in many cases I was asked to pay particular attention to certain parts of the plant or to certain equipment in the plant in order to determine the dust explosion hazard. At all times every possible courtesy was shown to the men engaged in this work.”
103 years later: Where are we?
One hundred and three years have passed since the Murray Grain Elevator exploded. During this time, thousands more have died in similar incidents across the world. Although the mandatory dust hazard analysis imposed by NFPA 652 is a step in the right direction, it doesn’t affect countries that observe different standards and even those governed by NFPA can -and probably will- resist safety measures that impact profitability. For this reason, these lessons from the past should be treated as warnings that ring true even today.
Reference Information: This article is based on DSS137: The Murray Grain Elevator Explosion of 1919.
Rose Keefe is a technical writer for the DustEx Research family of services, including DustSafetyScience.com. She has a special interest in exploring the past to identify and recommend safety strategies for the future.
This article is part of Dust Safety Week 2022. To read more articles on dust safety, click here.
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