Elevator fire prompts evacuation

Patty Decker / Free Press<p>Emergency personnel patrol the blockade keeping spectators away from Thursday?s elevator fire at Cooperative Grain & Supply in Marion. The Marion Senior Center, Marion County Courthouse and other locations in that vicinity were evacuated for several hours as a precaution.Emergency personnel from around the county rushed to a fire at the grain elevator on Third Street in Marion Thursday morning, but by early afternoon everyone was breathing a sigh of relief when the all-clear was given.

Mike Regnier, Marion City fire chief, said the fire started between 10:15-10:30 a.m. when a welder caught a conveyer belt on fire in the basement and flames spread through the grain conveyor system to the top of the structure.

Two firefighters from Marion and Hillsboro and one from Florence volunteered to go to the top.

?It was a dangerous place (for them),? Regnier said, ?but once they said the fire was contained, we knew the danger was over.?

?It?s the (grain) dust that is the problem,? he said, ?and that?s the scary part.?

The biggest concern with this type of fire, he said, is that a grain elevator explosion carries the force of a bomb, which is why so many buildings were evacuated.

Marion County Sheriff Rob Craft said the 911 call came through as a fire in the basement co-op elevator.

?Fire crews from Marion, Hillsboro and Florence were called to respond along with law enforcement officers, EMS and Marion County Emergency Management,? he said.

Randy Frank, director Emergency Management, said he and Regnier created a unified command, requesting an evacuation of South Third and Fourth streets and the Marion County Courthouse with the volatile nature of grain dust.

In addition to those evacuations, EMS, the sheriff?s office and Marion police officers went door-to-door to notify residents of the evacuation.

Craft said the evacuated area also included two daycare facilities.

?Once (those evacuations) were completed,? he said, ?the McPherson sheriff?s office was contacted and arrangements were made to evacuate the jail inmates, if needed.?

Arrangements were also made, if necessary, with Marion School District to use a school bus to transport inmates to McPherson.

?After the roads were closed and residents evacuated,? Craft said, ?(Fire Chief Mike) Regnier indicated that he believed the incident was being contained and that evacuation of the sheriff?s office, dispatch and jail was likely not necessary.?

As another precaution, Craft said his office and the Marion Police Department personnel controlled the perimeter to prevent access to the evacuated area.

?The event was closely monitored to ensure that an evacuation of the jail was not needed,? he said, ?and sometime between 1:30-1:45 p.m. Fire Chief Regnier requested a stand down of the evacuation and the area was cleared for residents to return to their homes.?

At the same time firefighters were engaged, the city?s protocol was put into place. Schools were contacted, principals were on alert, St. Luke Hospital was notified and the city?s office staff made sure childcare facilities in the area were informed. ?It really is a coordinated effort behind the scenes as well as those that have the eyes and ears right on the event,? Holter added.

?Unfortunately we plan for worst case scenarios and review them each year on who does what, but a (grain) elevator fire is always one of those that is extremely stressful for Mike with the potential of so many lives at risk.?

Gail Boaldin, chief nursing officer at St. Luke Hospital, said they were notified of the fire and potential impending disaster by EMS personnel, initially, and also by city officials.

?Hospital administration, providers, nursing staff and department heads were put on alert of the potential impending disaster,? Boaldin said. ?Medical Flight companies were also notified; however the flight ceiling was too low to have a helicopter on stand-by.?

The hospital participates in disaster drills, both live and table top exercises, within the county, region and on a state level, she said.

?This is something that we attempt to prepare for before it happens,? she said.

The hospital has also received grant funding through state and federal programs to obtain all the equipment needed and required for dealing with patients who may have been in contact with hazardous materials, Boaldin said.

?We have policies and procedures in place for disasters that may result in traumatic injuries to our community members/patients,? she said.

Hospital officials wanted to thank those who put themselves in harms way to protect our community to include emergency management, EMS, police, sheriff, fire and others.

Commission Chairman Dan Holub said the incident was handled as a ?team effort.?

He also wanted to acknowledge the five firefighters who didn?t know what would happen when they went to the top of the elevator.

?Emergency personnel were right there (at the elevator) putting their lives in danger,? he said. ?Everyone of those people were under a lot of pressure in protecting lives and property. They don?t train for this every week?these are volunteers.?

Craft said the fire crews took to control of the situation and acted swiftly and effectively to control the situation. Regnier said the firefighters at the top sent water down into the grain shoot.

?It was a dangerous place to be (with silos about 110-feet high) and required they not be afraid of heights or small places,? Regnier said.

?This is not a call you want to get every day.?

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