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The Daily



08-15-03: Employees injured in elevator explosion

    NEW BREMEN - A powerful explosion rocked Auglaize Farmers Cooperative Inc. Thursday afternoon, critically injuring two employees.
    The blast, centered in the loading dock area at the base of the grain elevator, could be heard throughout a large part of the Auglaize County community. A flash fire also occurred, but flames were out by th  time New Bremen-German Township Fire Department arrived on the scene with a full contingent of trucks.
    New Bremen-area farmer George Heitkamp backed his Chevy pickup to the loading dock on the east side shortly before the 2:50 p.m. explosion, intending to get feed for his pigs.
    "I had just gotten out of the truck and was walking around the front when I heard a loud bang," he told The Daily Standard. "It all happened so quick, I didn't know at first what happened. A minute more and I would have been inside."
    Clyde Wessel, the mill operator, and Steven Schrolucke, a truck driver, were approximately 10 feet inside the elevator building.
    "Clyde came out on his own steam," Heitkamp said. "His clothes were not on fire at the time but you could tell they had been. Steve was still inside."
    The farmer ran to the office located in a separate building, screaming for someone to call 911. The call already had been placed.
    The employees, both of whom reside in the New Knoxville area, were taken by ambulance to Joint Township District Memorial Hospital, St. Marys. New Bremen Police Chief Doug Harrod confirmed the men suffered serious burns.
    Wessel was transferred by CareFlight emergency helicopter to Miami Valley Hospital in Dayton, where he remains in critical condition in the intensive care unit.
    Schrolucke was taken aboard a LifeFlight helicopter to St. Vincent Mercy Medical Center in Toledo. He, too, remains in critical condition in the intensive care unit.
    Heitkamp, who escaped with singed hair, was taken by ambulance to Community Hospital, Coldwater, where he was treated then released.
    Elevator manager Bob Heitkamp also was inside the building, working approximately 20 feet from Wessel and Schrolucke. He emerged without injury.
    "Clyde and Steve have worked here five to seven years," he said. "They are good workers."
    With a staff of less than 10 people, employees are more like family than associates. Wessel is reportedly married and has a family, according to the manager.
    Harrod was on patrol when he received a radio message from street department employees working a block north of the elevator. Some of the men, who are firefighters, ran to the scene and began administering first aid until the New Bremen Emergency Squad arrived.
    Firefighters, with the aid of an aerial ladder truck, entered a window near the top of the concrete elevator tower to make sure all flames were out.
    Dennis Cummings of Van Wert, an investigator with the Ohio Fire Marshal's Office, arrived shortly after 5 p.m. After talking with firefighters, Cummings began his inspection in the area of the loading dock.
    "It was a dust explosion but we're still investigating what triggered it," Cummings said this morning. "Grain elevators generate a lot of dust. It's a hazard of the business."
    The powerful explosion, which apparently took place on the first level or in the basement of the facility, blew out windows on all sides of the structure. Shards of glass were carried nearly a hundred feet in all directions before raining down on nearby railroad tracks, farm fields and streets.
    "The explosion blew up and out through the entire building," Cummings added. "However, the flames were pretty well contained to the first floor."
    Russ Bertke, who resides about two blocks from the elevator, was installing a new sidewalk at his South Franklin Street home at the time.
    "Even with a cement truck running, the explosion was loud," he said. "My first thought was one of the grain bins fell over. We're used to regular elevator noise. This was definitely something out of the ordinary."
    The wail of sirens confirmed his suspicions, but he could not put down a trowel in order to take a look. Neighbors apprised him of what had transpired.     
    Yellow tape still surrounds the elevator today, with Cummings, local fire officials and insurance investigators returning to the scene.
    A structural engineer will determine whether the elevator remains structurally sound. A decision on when the business will reopen is expected once the engineering report is complete.
    This is reportedly the first explosion in the cooperative's 77-year history. It operates 15 elevators throughout the state.


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