100,000 bushel grain bin buckles
People in Philip downtown businesses were ordered by Philip Volunteer Fire Department personnel to evacuate.
This precautionary warning came at approximately 9:30 a.m. Friday, Aug. 24. The full 100,000 bushel grain bin, second bin from the far west, at Cenex Harvest States – Midwest Cooperative in Philip had finally reached an age point and had buckled.
Midwest employee Devin Ehlers had been working directly under the spot on the bin at a little after 9:00 when he heard a noise. It was not the sound of a train creeping into loading position. He contacted his supervisors.
From that point on, Midwest, CHS, the PVFD, law authorities, the Haakon County Emergency Manager, the Philip Ambulance Service, the city of Philip, and many other authorities were contacted. A declaration of caution was issued.
One scenario would be that the bin would hold fast. Another was that it would tumble to the ground, spilling grain over a very large area. The least likely scenario, but the most devastating, would be if spilling grain dust were to reach a spark and ignite in a flash point.
The first was the case, but the authorities acted on the precaution that the latter was still possible. The rest of the day, actually to about 3:00 a.m. Saturday morning, was an exercise in readiness.
PVFD Chief Marty Hansen called for a three-block evacuation. At 10:50 a.m., that was clarified for all bystanders to evacuate the open streets, particularly the crowded intersection of Center Avenue and Pine Street. He called for the responders’ staging area to be at the fire hall, which is partially behind the larger, far west grain bin.
“All we know is it has moved,” said Hansen at the time. “But, until it is declared as safe, no sense in getting anyone over there. We are taking it seriously.”
Jay Baxter, site manager for Midwest Co-op, explained that if the bin did not move any more in the next hour or so, it most likely was not going to. While other authorities watched with binoculars and eventually a transit, Baxter got the face-to-face story from Ehlers. In explaining that there was nothing that Ehlers could have done to have caused this, Baxter said, “after so many years (since 1981) of use, of expanding and contracting, repeatedly receiving all that weight and then being emptied, the bin just said it was ready to be done.”
Mayor Mike Vetter joined Baxter, and they joined others. Then the real story of community safety, inter-agency cooperation, and facts rather than speculation began.
“The first phone call I got was a possible explosion that could take out all of Philip,” said Vetter. “We want everyone to know what is happening and the danger potential. I want to be clear on what is going on.” To counter gossip and television/radio stations saying it was a state of emergency, the city and other outlets corrected those sources, officially declaring it a high state of caution. Any live streaming was put to a stop.
Other departments gathered. First on scene were the Wall Volunteer Fire Department, with Chief Jim Kitterman, and the Haakon County Emergency Manager, Lori Quinn. Quinn was designated as the scene’s public information officer. Matt Burtz, a Wall firefighter seemingly with experience in multi-department situations, led the coordination efforts.
It was quickly decided to call in extra personnel. Burtz said, “We are in a just-in-case scenario right now.” Hansen agreed, “I would rather have them and not need them.” Baxter said, “With power on (to begin draining the grain out of the bin) the potential is higher. I do not want anybody to get hurt. I do not want to minimize this. There is a hazard here, but all of us are on top of it. This community has responded wonderfully.”
Burtz said, “Pass on the general blanket message of ‘stay clear of the area.’ Fire crews were sent to roadways on the way into Philip to slow traffic and warn them to stay clear.
At 11:35 a.m., it was reported that the bin had not moved at all for at least an hour, and updates would come in every 10 minutes. At 11:39 a.m., the power to the bin was turned on and draining began, and a slow precautionary 350 bushels per hour were drained out of the bin. According to a West Central Electric Cooperative representative, the guys watching to unhook the power had not even taken down their hooks, standing by to stop all power.
Matt Reckling, Philip’s public works director, confirmed that the fire hydrant situation was good. Roger Williams, PVFD deputy chief, said, “Now it is a waiting game as much as not.”
“Another amazing thing about Philip is how everyone comes together,” said Baxter. “I will tell you one thing, the financial problems are nothing; everyone’s safety is first. Everyone here should be able, to some degree, relax. I really feel comfortable everything will turn out right.”
When a situation is as well in hand as it can be, humor starts to come out to relieve tension. Hansen said, “There is food.” Burtz replied, “At least we get a day off from our jobs, and we get hotdogs.” Baxter joked to Hansen, “Don’t suppose we could count this as a Midwest and PVFD training session?”
In all, departments from Philip, Wall. Quinn, Whispering Pines, Rapid Valley, North Haines, the Department of Transportation, and many others were on hand. Helping coordinate the situation was Jerome Harvey, Pennington County Fire.
The rest of the day was anticlimactic. Finally, Baxter, Hansen and others agreed, and Hansen said, “We are out of the woods.” Williams said, “It was the first two or so hours where it was going to be a problem.” After 5:00 p.m., various departments headed for home.
Williams said of everyone, “Good guys. Man, you call them for any kind of help and they are there. Everybody really pulled together and everybody really listened to what we needed them to do.” Vetter gave the go-ahead for businesses to re-open. Hansen said, “Our concern is to have nobody on the south side of E. Oak Street,” and he ordered barriers to be put up blocking parking on the south side of the street.
Burtz said, “I appreciate Jerome and all the Black Hills resources coming out – a huge resource of knowledge and experiences.”
At 3:00 a.m. Saturday morning, the grain bin was drained as far as it was going to be. Baxter, who had only a few hours of sleep, was under the bin at 7:00 a.m.
He was, for the uncountable number of times, again looking up at the kink in the bin. The grain level is a downward funnel with its outer edge just a few feet above the buckle line. This is to keep pressure equal on the weakened area. Baxter liked the analogy he heard from an expert at CHS. If you try to crush a pop can, it is not really that difficult. But, if you bend the can a bit, crushing it the rest of the way is far more difficult. Barring any complications, Baxter believes the bin will be repaired and back in service before next summer.