COSHOCTON, Ohio — After more than 60 years, the three silos at Coshocton Grain Company’s main facility known as the “Old House,” “A House” and “B House” had become more than a fixture on the city’s skyline.
On Aug. 13, 2014, a major explosion — caused by a spark from a defective idler bearing on a grain leg — severely damaged the three connected silos and injured six workers. Company CEO Rhoda Sue Crown said the explosion happened at 4 p.m., sending sections of the bins toppling onto several rail cars that were being loaded by five Coshocton Grain employees. An insurance company investigation found there was no negligence, Crown said, and “the bearing just failed.”
Two grain inspectors were also injured in the blast. Four employees were taken for treatment and one stayed overnight, Crown said. Another was LifeFlighted and was treated for inhalation and second and third-degree burns on his arms. He was released the next day. The grain inspectors were also treated, released and at home within 24 hours, Crown said.
Elevator Superintendent Rob Warnock was working in the office when the bins exploded.
“It was just shock and disbelief and the first thing you do is make sure we had all the guys accounted for,” he said. “Everyone did exactly what they were supposed to (in an emergency) and the first responders did a fantastic job. Everyone who was injured was at a hospital within 20 minutes of the explosion.”
Units from seven surrounding fire departments, along with the state fire marshal, responded to the scene, as the site was secured to ensure that there were no more fires. With all of the injured back home within days, the company now faced its next greatest challenge — rebuilding.
Coshocton Grain has two other Ohio locations, in Hebron and Johnstown, along with three facilities in Illinois. The company’s Ohio facilities service producers in 22 counties. The Coshocton location, which normally takes in 4 million bushels of corn and 1.5 million bushels of soybeans, has accepted no grain since the explosion, Crown said, adding, “Thank goodness we had business interruption insurance.”
She said the company helped customers go to other elevators and paid for their trucking costs.
“Some went to Hebron and others to surrounding elevators and feedmills,” Crown said.
Still, with most money made in the fall, Crown said, the loss of drying income since the explosion has had a “significant impact” on the business.
First and foremost, she said, was the timeline for getting the facility back online.
“The insurance company took control of everything; we had no say in anything,” Crown said, noting that the company’s original plan was to have demolition completed by December and construction started by April 1. “We had a plan, but they didn’t go as rapidly as we wanted to,” Warnock said.
A compromise was eventually met, allowing Eslich Wrecking and Custom Agri Builders to conduct demolition and construction at the site simultaneously.
“We told (the insurance company) ‘you can’t miss two crops,’ but they told us this is an 18-month process,” Crown said. “We said that can’t be.”
A grain salvage company had vacuumed roughly 1 million bushels of grain from the affected bins between Jan. 29 and mid-March. Crown said the new facility will be ready on or before Oct. 1.
Original plans have been scaled back somewhat, Crown said, in order to meet the operational deadline. The first phase of the project will include replacing 200,000-bushel storage capacity with two above-ground steel bins. The steel bins are more cost effective than concrete, Warnock said, as well as creating a work environment where “none of the fellows will be underground.”
“For our guys who lived through it, I’m not going to put someone back in the basement, however safe that may actually be,” he said. “It’s more employee relations. I’m just not going to ask somebody to do that.”
Phase I will also include the addition of a second drop pit; all new conveying equipment; a new grain leg; and a second scale so that traffic in and out will flow more efficiently, Warnock said.
“We had a 20,000 bushels-per-hour unloading capacity and now will be up to 35,000,” he said.
A new electrical system will also be housed in its own building. The former electrical system was housed in the basement of one of the damaged bins.
“So we lost power to the whole facility and we couldn’t back anything out,” Warnock said.
The second phase of the project, in spring 2016, will include another dump pit and a bin.
“We are taking an unfortunate accident and making a more efficient facility,” Crown said.
All employees at the Coshocton location have continued to be paid full wages during their recovery and return to work at other Coshocton Grain locations. The Coshocton facility had a staff of nine at the time of the explosion, and all but two — who were not involved in the accident — are expected to return, Crown said.
“We have also had food and fellowship gatherings every six weeks, with local businesses donating,” Crown said. “We wanted to keep them together. We were very, very lucky.”
Warnock said that if anything, the event has brought the staff closer.
“We are more like a family,” he said.
Still, Crown said, the downtime has had “a significant impact” on Coshocton Grain’s business.
“Everyone was very good to us, certainly the farming community,” she said of Coshocton Grain’s multi-generational customer base. “We appreciate our customers coming back as much as they appreciate us being here. So we are hopeful our customer base will come back.
“We sort of handed the keys to the castle to everyone else, so we hope those with previous loyalties return. We will be more efficient getting in and out than we were and it will still be like doing business with friends.”