Fatal Pekin Starch Explosion and What Caused It
Full Account of the Disaster at Corn Products Plant, Including Report by Fire Marshal Gamber on Joint Investigation—Fires of the Week
A DUST explosion has again taken a terrible toll of human life and destroyed hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of property. This time the explosion was that of starch dust, which, judging from its results seems to have been, equally as potent in its effects as that of grain dust. The disaster occurred on January 3 at 3.30 o’clock in the morning at the plant of the Corn Products Company, at Pekin, Ill. With only very little warning the dry starch house, three stories and basement, constructed of brick, was torn apart along with a neighboring structure and a third structure was partly destroyed. Building No. 27, the starch house, and building No. 33, where the starch powder was stored, were completely wiped out by the blast, and building No. 9, an older structure, in which the fire originated, was also partly destroyed. The resulting fire added to the horror of the disaster, causing the death of many, whom the explosion had badly injured and who were trapped in the ruins.
The buildings destroyed were equipped with modern machinery, some of which had only been installed thirty days previous to the explosion. Besides the men in the buildings themselves, a number were trapped in box cars in the yard of the plant, when these cars were telescoped by the force of the explosion. Unable to escape, the men in these cars were burned to death. Various estimates place the number of deaths at from 30 to 40. and the total, dead and injured, number, according to Fire Chief Julius F. Jaeckel, of Pekin, about seventy men. Following the explosion a fire broke out in an adjoining building, but this was kept under control by members of the Pekin fire department.
Many of those most severely injured, nearly all oi whom were workingmen in the plant and lived in Pekin and Peoria, died later from the terrible burns and other injuries received in the explosion and fire. The fire alarm was received by Chief Jaeckel at 3:40 a. m. by telephone, but the sound of the explosion had already apprized the fire department of the fact that some terrible disaster had occurred, and they were quickly on the spot. Little could be done, however, as so many of the killed and injured were buried under tons of debris from the wrecked buildings. The fire department used a Seagrave triple combination and also two 1,000-gallon Buffalo fire pumps at the plant, suction being taken from the river in order to supply water, besides utilizing the city mains. According to Chief Jaeckel the firemen were greatly hampered from the fact that the sprinkler mains had been broken through the force of the explosion and he connected three of the city lines of mains to the thousand-gallon Buffalo pump of the plant, and kept this at work for 29 hours. Four 6-inch double hydrants were used, spaced about 200 feet apart, with a pressure of 100 pounds. Five hydrant and three engine streams were thrown, with nozzles of 1 1/8 and 1 1/4 inches, 1,350 feet of department fire hose and 1.600 feet of Starch Company hose being laid, the sizes being 2 5/8 and 2 1/2 inches. A three-way Kastman deluge set with lj^-inch nozzle was also used to fight the fire.
The work of rescue was very seriously hampered by severe cold and by snow which started to fall shortly after the explosion. So severe was the cold, that after working for some hours, many of the rescuers had to give up. They worked in short shifts, relieving each other frequently. A heavy crane was brought into service while the ruins were still hot in an attempt to remove the tons of debris in order to get out the bodies of those entombed in the ruins. It is thought that many of the bodies will never be recovered. The injured as soon as they were removed were taken to Peoria, but before this was done and immediately after their being taken from the ruins, the injured were carried to a first aid hospital at the plant and a bucket brigade was formed of trained employees to douse them with oil from head to foot. So quickly and efficiently was this done that one of the doctors of the St. Francis hospital, Pekin, declared that undoubtedly the lives of many of the injured were saved by this prompt treatment. Nine men were entombed in the telescoped box cars which were blown off the track and shattered by the force of the explosion and in spite of frantic efforts to remove the debris over these cars and get at the men, their cries ceased after 10 a. m., and it was feared that all had perished.
The firemen and other rescuers were badly hampered by heavy volumes of smoke, which in spite of a high wind, seemed to hang over the destroyed plant. rite Salvation Army did heroic work in caring for the injured and also supplied food and hot drinks for the rescuers. Investigations were started immediately after the fire by State Fire Marshal John G. Gamber and his department and also by the United State Department of Agriculture, E. J. Price, an expert in the study of explosions, H. R. Brown and P. W. Edwards, being sent to Pekin to investigate the explosion for the government. After an exhaustive joint investigation by these two parties, conclusions were reached which have been formulated for F’IRE AND WATER ENGINEERING by Mr. Gamber, and according to him, are as follows:
“The investigation for the state was in personal charge of John G. Gamber, State Fire Marshal and David J. Price, Engineer in charge of Dust Explosion Investigations of the U. S. Bureau of Chemistry, Department of Agriculture, Washington, D. C., directed the investigation for the Federal Government, assisted by Hylton R. Brown and Paul W. Edwards, associate engineers.
“The investigators for both state and federal governments conducted a joint investigation, which was very thorough and complete. State Fire Marshal Gamber reached Pekin the morning of the disaster and the government investigators, owing to the difficulty in transportation, as a result of the extreme cold weather were delayed in reaching Pekin until Sunday morning, January 6.
“Every effort was made to obtain all available information from the injured men in the hospitals, the survivors of the explosion and the other workmen and the officials of the company. The effects of the explosion on the machinery and the equipment were thoroughly studied and the behavior and action of the explosion carefully observed. After exhausting all available resources and a thorough survey of the conditions existing after the explosion, the following conclusions have been reached:
“The explosion apparently originated from a fire, caused by an overheated bearing in the conveyor box leading from the north tipple in the basement of old No. 9 building at a point about fifteen feet from the tipple hopper. This fire apparently occurred about 3:35 A. M., Thursday, Jan. 3, 1924, at a time when one of the starch buggies or wagons was being dumped on the north tipple in the kiln house. The dust produced by the dumping of the wagon would furnish a cloud to be ignited by the fire in the conveyor box in the basement and in the opinion of the investigators, the first or primary explosion occurred at this point in the basement of old No. 9, blowing down a tile wall and spreading through an opening up to the kiln floor, severely burning several men on the west or hot side of the kilns and extending its energy through the entire building, traveling upward to the floors above. Owing to the approved type of construction, the damage to building No. 9 was limited to the blowing out of windows and ventilators. The value of this type of* construct.on for explosion control was very evident.
“From the apparent point of origin in the basement of No. 9 building, the fire spread eastward through the conveyor to the first cross conveyor (west conveyor) to the west elevator leg in the old annex building. The fire gives evidence of having traveled up this elevator leg to the upper floors of the annex building and then southward through the conveyor into the starch hoppers in the starch packing house, known as building No. 27. This fire by this time would have built up sufficient pressure to have reached the explosion stage and in traveling from the hoppers through the conveyors, reels and other equipment, reached the packing machines on the north side of the first floor of building 27, where the second or real violent explosion occurred, severely burning the men in this part of the building and causing such extensive property damage.
“The testimony of the survivors, confirms the conclusion reached by the investigators, which is also sustained by the evidence remaining after the explosion. The conclusions are very definite and fully agreed to by both the state and federal investigators.
“In the opinion of the investigators, unfortunate as the disaster has been, information of considerable value, heretofore not obtained in the investigation of previous explosions of this character, has been obtained, which will enable the application of additional control measures for the prevention of these dust explosions in industrial plants throughout the world. It is the opinion of the investigators, that operations in which dust is produced in large quantities, should be separated from other operations in industrial plants of this character and that such operations as starch dumping and packing, should be carried on in separate buildings, remotely located from the other parts of the plant, and these buildings should be of such construction as to afford the least resistance in case of explosion and not confine the pressure.
“The investigators received the complete co-operation from all the officials of the Corn Products Refining Co., the workmen and other interested parties, which has been very helpful and much appreciated.”
The loss was estimated roughlv at between $450,000 and $500,000.
Phoebus Fire Department Has Anniversary—The volunteer fire department of Phoebus, Va., on January 8 celebrated its thirtieth anniversary by holding a banquet on the evening of that date. The chief engineer of the department, Chester Haas, who has served in that capacity for thirteen years, had charge of the social arrangements and the occasion was pronounced a success. The chief of the department is George H. Lancer.