The prospect of an explosion during Thursday’s fire at the Cooperative Grain and Supply grain elevator in Marion led to a precautionary evacuation of people within a two-block radius.
Marion fire chief Mike Regnier ordered the evacuation shortly after 11 a.m., about 30 minutes after arriving at the scene.
“It looked like there was more smoke coming out and we were worried about the elevator with all the dust going up in it,” he said. “We thought it was better to be on the safe side than the sorry side.”
Parents were allowed through blockades to pick up children in neighboring day care centers, and Marion Senior Center, residences, and Marion County Courthouse were evacuated for 2½ hours.
Elevator worker John Ottensmeier sustained smoke inhalation and a laceration suffered when he struck his head on a pipe while fleeing the fire.
Firefighters from Marion, Hillsboro, and Florence battled the blaze, which reportedly started in a 15-by-15-foot “pit” area beneath the elevator when welding accidentally ignited a rubber belt that lifts grain into storage bins.
Florence firefighter Evan Slater was the first of four firefighters who climbed more than 120 feet to the top of the elevator to search for clues of the fire’s whereabouts.
“When we went up, we knew the fire had gone up the leg, but we didn’t know if the fire had spread,” he said. “As far as we knew, sparks could have fallen down into the grain.”
Grain throughout the elevator reportedly did not catch fire; however, smoke rose through the elevator’s “legs,” causing billowing clouds to emerge from the top of the structure.
“We were right below the roof,” Slater said. “It was all full of smoke, steam, and grain dust.”
Firefighters hoisted a fire hose, breathing apparatus, and a fire extinguisher to the top, then had to shoot water down the leg through a small gap between a large pulley and the wall, Slater said.
Dampness and humidity also helped firefighters with the situation, Regnier said.
“Sometimes you get a little luck on your side,” Regnier said.
Slater was treated for smoke inhalation at St. Luke Hospital.
Marion’s supply manager Mike Thomas said most of the fire’s smoke was contained within the elevator’s legs.
“None to very little of the grain was affected,” Thomas said. There might be a little smoke damage to some, but we will air it out.”