Grain-elevator fire prompts evacuations in East Toledo

9/14/2010
BY DAVID PATCH AND BRIDGET THARP
BLADE STAFF WRITERS

A wheat fire that smoldered all day at an East Toledo grain elevator caused no injuries but forced nearby residents from their homes long into the night and was expected to keep firefighters on the scene for days.

About 16 hours after the fire was reported to authorities Monday, Battalion Chief Tom Jaksetic of the Toledo Fire Department said some of the fire-damaged grain had been found among the 100,000 bushels of wheat in the silo, after a wrecking crane had punched a hole in its side to disgorge some of the grain and potentially relieve pressure as well.

The evacuation of a neighborhood east of the Archer Daniels Midland elevator along the Maumee River and just west of Miami Street was a precaution against the possibility of a grain-dust explosion or a catastrophic collapse of the elevator. The evacuation order was lifted for all areas — except a 27-unit mobile home park across from the silo — by late last night.


Miami Street remained closed between Fassett Street and Oregon Road.

About 30 police officers — as many as half of whom were property crimes and crimes against persons detectives — knocked on doors early in the afternoon to evacuate a three-block radius around the silo, an area bounded roughly by the Norfolk Southern Railroad, Oak Street, and Oakdale Avenue. Officer William Michalski strolled down Felt Street about 1 p.m., knocking to alert any remaining residents about the evacuation.

Tammy Theiss, 46, refused to leave her home on Fassett despite police orders. She said she was feeling ill, and didn't want to leave her cat and Lhaso Apso dog behind.

“If something's going to happen, they're going with me and it's too hot for them to sit in the vehicle,” Ms. Theiss said. “When it gets to be a life-and-death situation, we'll go.”

Patricia Staley watches the news of the grain elevator fire from the East Toledo Senior Center. Ms. Staley lives on Utah Street near the elevator and was forced to leave her home.
Patricia Staley watches the news of the grain elevator fire from the East Toledo Senior Center. Ms. Staley lives on Utah Street near the elevator and was forced to leave her home.

The fire was reported at 6:47 a.m. by ADM workers who had arrived at 6:30 for the day's work at the elevator and noticed high temperature readings in the silo.

At no time was flame visible outside the elevator, but the smell of burnt grain was strong downwind, and concrete near the silo's top chipped and fell off late in the afternoon.

During one of several news conferences throughout the day, Assistant Fire Chief Luis Santiago said officials would review records after several neighborhood residents reported having called 911 on Sunday to report the smell of burning grain.

Once authorities decided to punch a hole in the silo to search for the fire, it took nearly four hours to summon a crane to the scene, assemble it, and position it in the spot from which its operator then swung a wrecking ball at the silo's side. After a 30-minute pounding that loosened ever-larger concrete chunks and clouds of dust, grain began streaming from the silo, but without any evidence even then of the conflagration inside.

Chief Jaksetic said cleanup, salvage, and demolition operations at the stricken grain silo likely would require an extended firefighting presence.

“We'll have people out here for days,” he said.

The silo fire was across the Maumee River from where a pair of explosions occurred in July, 2005, in The Andersons/Cargill grain elevator. That incident shut down I-75, causing major traffic headaches at the start of a holiday weekend.

Roman Blahoski, spokesman for ADM in Decatur, Ill., said the grain inside its damaged silo is valued at $3.5 million. The steel-reinforced silo walls are 8 to 10 inches thick.

“The wrecking ball is slow-going, but it appears to be working. Once they knock the holes in there, the grain will fall out,” Mr. Blahoski said.

He said the spots where the ball made contact with the silo remained “structurally sound.”

Heat senors were being used to monitor the temperature, but he did not have access to the current reading. He was uncertain whether heat sensors monitored the silos and grain before the accident.

The spokesman had no idea when regular grain-handling operations would resume.

Earlier in the day, about a dozen people who were evacuated from the East Toledo neighborhood sat on the sidewalk in front of the carryout at Fassett and Oak streets, Fassett Street Drop-In.

Justin Heuring, 29, said he and his family were rushed out of their home at Utah and Fassett, so no one packed clothing or a snack for their 18-month-old, Payton Coleman. The little one was sitting in a plastic wagon and sharing her snacks purchased from the corner store with 1-year-old Mya Calvillo, who had toddled away from her father, Anthony Calvillo. Mr. Calvillo offered a clean diaper to Mr. Heuring.

“They told us there was a big chance the grain elevator could explode, to get what we could and just get out,” Mr. Heuring said, adding that he wasn't sure where the family would sleep if they weren't allowed back into their home.

Mr. Calvillo said he had just fed his daughter and put her down for a nap when a neighbor knocked to let him know the police were evacuating the neighborhood.

“I was just laying her down, drinking a beer. I just got my afternoon going,” Mr. Calvillo, 34, said of being told to leave his place.

Tammy Pendleton, 41, and her roommate packed one change of clothes and wrangled their two cats into the same mesh pet carrier before wandering over the store to wait for a ride. She said she planned to spend the night with her sister, while her roommate would stay with a friend.

“We walked down here to the store earlier and found out it was being evacuated,” Ms. Pendleton said. “The smell was really bad earlier.”

About 12 people, mostly elderly and families, clustered at a shelter set up the East Toledo Senior Activities Center on White Street, where the Red Cross was handing out free food and beverages.

“I didn't want to leave, I had work to do,” said Olivia Lopez, who lives about two blocks from the grain elevator. Ms. Lopez was at the senior center with her elderly mother, Maria Lopez, and her dog.

She said she'd been painting her bathroom and listening to music when the police knocked on her door to tell her to evacuate.

“It's an inconvenience. All you can do is sit here and sit here,” she said.

Although she couldn't see the fire from her house, Ms. Lopez said she'd been smelling a sulphurlike smell in the air since Sunday evening. She said she thought it was somebody having a cookout and was surprised when she heard about the fire.

The shelter shut down last night after most of the evacuation was lifted and it was empty of evacuees.

Four schools near the scene took precautionary measures. Students at Oakdale Elementary, Navarre Elementary, East Broadway Middle School, and Waite High School who live within the evacuation zone were held at school until their parents came to pick them up, Toledo Public Schools spokesman Patty Mazur said. She said the process was orderly and no problems were reported.

Around Oakdale Elementary, traffic was heavier than usual as worried parents came to pick up their children and had to navigate through the nearby streets that were blocked off because of the fire.

Daryl Austin, the father of two girls at Oakdale Elementary who lives a block from the elevator, said he'd been away from home all day, but heard about the fire on the news.

He immediately headed over to the school to pick up his daughters.

“I was a little nervous, I ain't gonna lie,” Mr. Austin said. “You never know what to expect.”

Staff writers Claudia Boyd-Barrett, Mark Reiter, and Jim Sielicki contributed to this report.

Contact David Patch at:dpatch@theblade.comor 419-724-6094.