Joseph Michaelis doesn’t remember hearing the explosion, but the whoosh of flames and the feeling of hair melting off his head won’t be forgotten.

He was one of six people injured when Vernon Center’s grain elevator exploded Tuesday morning. The blast shook homes in the town of about 350 people, but the obvious damage was limited to the Crystal Valley Cooperative-owned facility.

Michaelis, 42, of Blue Earth was working in the feed mill next to the elevator when grain dust ignited and sent flames through the two buildings. The roof of the elevator was blown off, a hole was ripped through the top of the feed mill, and debris covered a truck that was parked on a scale between the two buildings.

“There was no forewarning; it just came at me,” Michaelis said, describing the burst of flames. “I knew what had happened, I just couldn’t believe it. I thought I was gonna die.”

His boss, Will Blowers, was working in what is known as “the pit” of the elevator. It’s an area below ground where grain is dropped from the semi trailers used to haul it. That’s where the only flames were found when Vernon Center Fire Chief Hank Roelofs arrived at the scene minutes after the explosion.

Blowers was airlifted to Regions Hospital in St. Paul to be treated for burns.

A flash of fire that shot about 200 feet into the air was seen by Roelofs as he was harvesting corn in a field about a mile west of the downtown elevator. He also felt the concussion from the blast, which was reported at about 7:20 a.m. through 911 calls from neighboring residents.

Roelofs said he immediately drove into town, got a fire truck from the station and arrived at the elevator shortly after the explosion. There was only a very small fire in the pit of the elevator that he put out with a fire extinguisher.

“I expected the whole thing to be on fire,” Roelofs said.

Firefighters remained at the scene to be ready if the 200,000 bushels of corn inside the elevator started burning. There were reports of some hot spots just before 9 a.m., prompting police to move onlookers farther away from the buildings.

Nearby houses were evacuated just after noon because authorities were concerned the elevator might topple onto anhydrous ammonia storage tanks to the west of the elevator, said Capt. Will Purvis of the Blue Earth County Sheriff’s Department.

Three state fire marshals were sent to the elevator to investigate the cause of the blast. Their investigation was delayed because they were concerned about pockets of smoldering corn and the stability of the building, Purvis said Tuesday afternoon.

“They haven’t gotten inside yet,” he said.

Jacque Noy was thankful her husband, David, decided to leave their 2-year-old son, Jonathan, at their Vernon Center home Tuesday morning. David Noy was one of several farmers in an office in the feed mill when the elevator blew. He’s also trained in emergency medical services and was able to help Blowers before ambulances and a helicopter arrived.

He’s been bringing his son with him on runs to the elevator and for other farm chores but decided to leave him behind Tuesday. Jacque heard the explosion from their home about a quarter mile west of town and called David to ask what happened, not knowing he was at the elevator.

“He said, ‘I’m right in the middle of it,’ and hung up,” she said.

There were several farmers, including Rod Boesch of Amboy, waiting to drop off grain when the elevator opened at 7 a.m. He ducked under the dash in the cab of his truck when he saw the flames.

Boesch suspected there was a problem inside the elevator because they had stopped unloading the truck in front of him. He was second in line.

“All of a sudden there was a huge fire ball and stuff was flying everywhere,” he said. “When I got out, there were several other farmers running out of the office.”

In addition to Blowers and Michaelis, two other Crystal Valley Cooperative employees were taken to the hospital to be treated for injuries Tuesday. Michaelis was in good condition at Immanuel St. Joseph’s Hospital. Jeff Kruse of Vernon Center was in fair condition at ISJ, and Perry Blythe of Lake Crystal was treated there and released.

Noy and one other farmer also were hospitalized. Noy was in good condition at ISJ, and Dean Kelly was transferred to Regions Hospital in St. Paul, where he was in fair condition Tuesday.

Out-of-commission elevator will affect farmers

An elevator explosion that closed down Vernon Center’s elevator and grain mill Tuesday couldn’t have come at a worse time for farmers harvesting their corn.

Between 100 and 200 farmers south of Mankato use the Crystal Valley Cooperative elevator to sell and store grain.

But the biggest challenge for the cooperative will be finding a way to supply the dozens of livestock owners who buy feed from the Vernon Center facility, said Roger Kienholz, the cooperative’s general manager. A feed grinding mill next to the elevator also was damaged by the blast.

“This shuts down a key facility right in the middle of harvest,” Kienholz said.

More than 200 tons of feed were being processed at the mill daily. The cooperative’s only other feed mill is in Janesville. It’s about the same size, so feed production was quickly cut in half for the business.

The elevator was able to store 200 bushels of grain and another 400 bushels can be stored in steel bins at the site. A bunker was built at the facility recently to store another 500 bushels of corn.

Elevators throughout the region are filled to capacity. Grain shipping on barges on the Mississippi River has been slowed by hurricanes along the Gulf Coast. Storage also has been strained in the area because many farmers have seen record yields from their corn and soybean crops during the past few years.

“Everybody is full,” Kienholz said. “So it’s time to regroup and figure out what to do with help from our neighbors.”

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