Grain Bin Collapse: Searching For Answers

A retailer’s worst nightmare, last week’s grain bin collapse in Hillsboro, IA, is now in the cleanup stage. What happened?

According to the Burlington Hawk Eye, a large grain bin at Chem Gro of Hillsboro containing a reported 500,000 bushels of corn collapsed around 8 p.m. Nov. 20. The massive torrent of grain moved a neighboring house, knocking down the walls and roof of the home of Jesse and Jennifer Kellet, trapping the couple, along with their two children, inside. Rescuers were able to dig Jennifer and daughter Sheyanne, 9, out in a few minutes, but Jesse and Jordan, 11, were trapped for a few hours before being pulled out to safety. The rescuers used high-powered blowers to suck the corn from the house.

According to various newspaper and online reports, the grain bin had been built during the summer and was a cause of contention in the community. A neighbor confirmed that the Kellets had talked with an attorney about the bin’s close proximity to their property.

Harold Dyer, one of the owners of Chem Gro, told the Hawk Eye that removal of the spilled grain is continuing, even through snow flurries. A report from WQAD noted “there’s a mountain of corn worth more than $1.5 million dollars.”

Houghton, IA-based Chem Gro owns several grain elevators in the region. Dyer believes they have owned the Hillsboro facility for about 20 years and have not had other problems with grain bins.

He said company officials don’t have any clues why the bin fell, noting that it will be up to engineers to investigate the matter. “It’s very unusual for those bins to split like that,” he told the Hawk Eye. “I’ve never heard of it before.”

As of Monday (Nov. 26) afternoon, Jesse Kellett is in good condition with several lacerations, according to his wife. Doctors are concerned about severe cuts on his left foot.

Meanwhile, a Cedar Rapids salvage company hired by the grain elevator’s insurance company is cleaning up the spill. Dyer didn’t know how much corn has been removed since Monday’s spill. “The community has been helpful,” Dyer told the Hawk Eye newspaper. “The farmers in the area came in with their equipment that night and did a really good job. Considering everything, we’re getting along very well.”

The bin was manufactured and erected by Conrad American, whose parent company is Hawkeye Steel Co. in Houghton. Thomas Wenstrand, one of the company’s owners, declined to comment on the matter.

Dyer said Chem Gro officials aren’t sure if they will rebuild.”We’ll clean up first and make our plans from there,” he told the newspaper.

A number of factors could cause a grain bin to collapse, including a bin’s age, a manufacturer’s error, poor-quality concrete foundation or poor-quality steel, how the bin was loaded or unloaded, wind, and shifting soil under a foundation. According to Jerry Wille of Curry, Wille and Associates in Ames, IA, bin manufactures usually follow the standards of industry, which are set by the national engineering group. Those standards were upgraded in the late 1970s as grain bins got bigger and ways to load and unload them got faster.

“The thing that people tend to believe is that someone is out to make a buck and cut corners,” said Wille, an agricultural engineer and consultant for facilities associated with agriculture, including grain bins. “I’ve worked with a lot of contractors. If they know there is a problem, they will correct it. Nobody wants a failure.”

Grain doesn’t act like water when it’s being unloaded. The mass reacts different ways inside the bin’s confinement. “Bins are a living and breathing material. Pressures inside a bin change all the time,” Wille said. “We think of steel and concrete as stable. But everything is changing and moving around.”

(Sources include the Burlington Hawk Eye, WQAD, and The Associated Press)

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