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Young drawn to hard, dangerous jobs at elevators

Smoke continues to rise from the damaged Bartlett Grain Company elevator in Atchison, Kan. Monday, Oct. 31, 2011. Six people were killed after a grain dust explosion rocked the facility Saturday night. The final three bodies were recovered Monday from the burnt wreckage of a Kansas grain elevator where a weekend explosion killed six people and injured two others, a company official said. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

Smoke continues to rise from the damaged Bartlett Grain Company elevator in Atchison, Kan. Monday, Oct. 31, 2011. Six people were killed after a grain dust explosion rocked the facility Saturday night. The final three bodies were recovered Monday from the burnt wreckage of a Kansas grain elevator where a weekend explosion killed six people and injured two others, a company official said. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

Mckinley Keil, 8, wipes away tears as she looks at a memorial Monday, Oct. 31, 2011 outside the Bartlett Grain Company in Atchison, Kan. Keil’s dad, Travis Keli, was one of six people killed in an explosion at the elevator Saturday night. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

Ramona and Gary Keil, stand with their grandson Teagan Keil, 12, as they wait for word on their son and Teagan’s, father, Travis Keil Monday, Oct. 31, 2011 outside the Bartlett Grain Company in Atchison, Kan. Three people are confirmed dead and three others missing, including Travis Keil, in the aftermath of an explosion at the facility Saturday night. Emergency personnel are now in a recovery operation for the three missing individuals. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

Teagan Keil, 12, right, is comforted by Radene Rupert after Keil learned that the body of his father, Travis Keil, had been recovered Monday, Oct. 31, 2011 a the Bartlett Grain Company in Atchison, Kan. Six people were killed in an explosion at the elevator Saturday night. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

Members of Travis Keil’s family, including his mother Ramona Keil, right, daughter Justine Keil, 15, center, and ex-wife Christina Rupert, left, react after finding out that Travis Keil’s body was recovered in the rubble of the Bartlett Grain Company in Atchison, Kan. Monday, Oct. 31, 2011. Keil was among six people killed in an explosion at the facility Saturday night. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

ATCHISON, Kan. (AP) — The men killed in a grain elevator explosion in Kansas included an Iraq war veteran, an avid collector of model John Deere tractors who hoped to farm and a soon-to-be husband looking forward to a wedding only three weeks away.

Four of the six were younger than 25, something unsurprising in a business that experts say involves a lot of physical labor and tends to be a young man’s game.

The work there also tends to be dangerous. Farmers take their grain to elevators to be stored, and sometimes processed, before it is marketed or sold. Fine, highly combustible grain particles flow through the buildings as corn and other grain are moved. A spark from equipment or perhaps a cigarette can ignite the dust, sending a pressure wave that detonates the rest of the floating dust in the facility.

Relatives gathered Monday outside the Bartlett Grain Co. elevator in Atchison, about 50 miles northwest of Kansas City. They turned the sign outside the elevator into a memorial for the dead, with a gray sweatshirt honoring one with his name written in marker and the question, “Why!”

The bodies of three victims were found over the weekend, but unstable concrete, hanging steel beams and other damage had forced crews to temporarily suspend the search for the remaining three. They were found Monday morning, and five of the six had been identified by the afternoon, either by authorities or family members.

They included elevator employees John Burke, 24, of Denton, and Ryan Federinko, 21, Curtis Field, 21, and Chad Roberts, 20, all from Atchison. Two grain inspectors also died. They were Travis Keil, 34, an Iraqi war veteran from Topeka with three children who’d been a site inspector for 16 years, and Darrek Klahr, 43, of Wetmore.

The memorial for the victims included a wreath of sunflowers, which were part of the theme for the wedding reception Roberts and his fiancée had planned at a local Veterans of Foreign Wars hall. The high school sweethearts planned to marry Nov. 19, and they’d already bought a home in April and renovated it.

“He was fun, and he couldn’t wait to be a husband and a dad,” said Roberts’ fiancée, Alicia Cobleigh.

She said he liked to hunt and fish and often took her fishing with him.

There have more than 600 explosions at grain elevators, killing more than 250 people and injuring more than 1,000 over the past four decades, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Last year, there were non-fatal grain explosions or fires in several states including Nebraska, Illinois, Ohio, South Dakota and Louisiana.

But Tom Tunnell, executive director of the Kansas Grain and Feed Association, the industry’s trade group, said he worked at an elevator for nine years and didn’t consider it particularly dangerous. He likened the possibility of major accidents to that of airplane crashes.

The cause of Saturday’s explosion is still under investigation. Senior Vice President Bob Knief said Bartlett’s safety record was “exemplary” and the company is cooperating with OSHA and other government agencies. He spoke at a news conference and declined to answer questions.

Along with the six people killed, two were injured in the blast. One was in critical condition and the other was listed as serious on Monday, said Bob Hallinan, spokesman for The University of Kansas Hospital.

Tunnel said grain elevators tend to attract younger employees. The work is “labor intensive,” but the wages are “competitive,” he said.

An association survey of 40 Kansas elevators found warehouse employees doing harvest work earned an average of $33,300 in wages and bonuses last year. Maintenance workers earned an average of $45,500, and superintendents made about $45,500 to $47,000 a year.

“A lot of these individuals don’t necessarily have a four-year degree for something like this, so there are a lot of great local career opportunities that grain elevator facilities provide,” said Sarah Bowser, the group’s membership services director. “And when you drive across Kansas, you see a local grain elevator almost everywhere.”

Field, who collected model tractors, had worked at the Bartlett elevator for nearly a year, while also working on his family’s farm. He didn’t talk about the potential dangers of working at an elevator, his parents said.

“Until this happened, everything was just good,” Lynn Fields said. “He enjoyed coming to work, and he enjoyed the people he was working with. And that makes for a nice, happy job.”

Also, she said, “Just trying to get a job right now — everybody knows it’s a tough job market.”

Associated Press

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