Memories of 1985 South Dakota grain elevator explosion remain ‘clear as a bell’
Incident killed three, injured four
MARION, S.D. — It was a quiet Saturday evening, a little past 6 p.m., and Duane and Marlys Tieszen were just sitting down in their kitchen to enjoy a snack.
“We were sitting right at this table, and we had just gotten out a pail of ice cream and had bowls on the table,” Duane told the Mitchell Republic in a recent interview. “And our place started jumping. That’s exactly what it did.”
A series of three explosions, all in quick succession, had thundered through the community of Marion, a city of about 800 residents located approximately 45 minutes west-southwest of Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Duane, mayor of the town at the time who also served as an emergency medical technician and firefighter, and Maryls, also an EMT, knew immediately that something had gone terribly wrong.
“I ran to the door and I could see the fire out there. I (told Marlys) 'grab your jacket, we gotta go,'” Duane recalled.
The local Farmer's Cooperative Grain Association elevator, a concrete prairie skyscraper located just east off Broadway Avenue in downtown Marion, was on fire. The couple raced to their emergency response equipment, and arrived on the scene a few minutes later to a chaotic, terrifying scene. They and their fellow responders were ready to assist with the injured as well as extinguish the fire.
But it would not be easy.
The elevator structure still stands serenely today in the center of Marion. Looking at it today under clear blue skies, it is difficult to imagine the scene that erupted at the location nearly 37 years ago on Nov. 2, 1985.
With harvest season in full swing at the time, tractors and trucks pulling gravity wagons full of crops were lined up on Broadway coming from two different directions. Several dozen of them were likely in line to offload their corn or beans that evening, Duane said, and they were all centered right around the elevator, which had clearly exploded and was burning.
The impacts of the explosion were immediate. The explosion had cut off power to some sections of town, including a 220-volt line that ran the town’s emergency whistle, which could be heard yawning a weak wail as it tried to perform its duties.
But responders didn’t need an emergency whistle to know they had an emergency on their hands. Duane and another firefighter had reached the fire department and began getting the trucks where they needed to be. It was about that time that the severity of the situation became more clear.
“What did we hear but screaming, and we didn’t know where it was coming from,” Duane said.
The emergency crews and other community members tried to take stock of where to concentrate their efforts. Fire personnel looked for ways to extinguish the blaze while others began searching for any injured or survivors. That was a difficult task. There were dozens of farmers in the immediate vicinity of the blast, but nobody knew for sure how many or who they were. In the era prior to cell phones and instant communication, it was difficult to tell if anyone was missing.
Some people in line who were unaffected by the explosion left the scene, either to get clear and allow emergency crews to work or to get back to their fields to continue their harvesting.
Eventually, fire crews from around the region were on the scene. Duane recalled that in addition to Marion, departments from Freeman, Hurley, Viborg, Canton, Chancellor, Centerville, Lennox, Parker, Monroe and Canistota arrived ready to help, but there was a problem. Even with all that manpower on scene, the crews were not used to working with each other or even aware of what equipment each had available.
“They were all parked there. And we needed stuff, but no fire department knew what the other fire departments had. So there was a little bit of thinking about what we were going to do,” Duane said.
It wasn’t long before the media was also on the scene. Duane said a television news crew from Sioux Falls was driving on Interstate 90 when they saw the explosion from at least 20 miles away. They made a beeline for the flash they had seen.
“(They) were coming down the interstate, and they saw that, and they drove right down here. Within 15 minutes the news was here, and they were not bashful,” Duane said. “They were all over right near the elevator.”
As fire chiefs organized and debated, the challenge became clear.
“We had never had any training for anything that serious. We backed that truck up there and heard the screaming. There was a fire in the basement, and our concern then was to get that fire put out. We had no idea somebody was down there,” Duane said.
Rescue and recovery
The explosion had ripped open the concrete leg that lifted corn to the bins, causing corn to flow out like water. One local farmer had fallen through a hole opened up in the floor of the office and had his leg pinned underneath a massive chunk of concrete. Emergency crews located him, but getting him out was a tall order.
Duane said that the victim later recalled that at first he thought he would burn to death. Then, as crews poured water on the blaze to extinguish it, he thought he would drown. And then the corn started to pile up around him.
“When we got down in there, the corn kept coming in but stopped with his head just above the corn,” Duane said. “If he had had his arms down he probably would have passed out or died.”
Crews worked with whatever they could to scoop out corn to give them and the victim some room. They resorted to using empty three-pound coffee cans as buckets to carve a path through the corn to get to him. They then had to figure out a way to unpin his leg from beneath the slab of concrete that was holding him in place.
There was some talk about possibly amputating the victim’s leg on the spot in order to get him out before something else went wrong, but an area doctor from Salem who was on the scene refused to do it, and said he would see to it that no other doctor would do it, either, Duane said.
Though the official cause of the explosion was later determined to be an electric motor spark igniting grain dust, crews at the time weren’t sure what had caused it. Had it been a natural gas or propane explosion? Even if it hadn’t been caused by natural gas, was there a chance that there was a gas leak that resulted from the explosion itself?
They dared not use equipment that could cause another explosion with an unintentional spark, so they had to improvise. The elevator had a compressed air source, and a farmer on scene had an air hammer. It was with that that they chipped away at the concrete and finally freed the victim from his prison.
That rescue alone took nearly three and a half hours, but the victim survived.
The rescue efforts went on through the night. Eventually, the fire was extinguished and the injured were rushed to hospitals. Three individuals, Delbert Dick, Roger Schultz and Keith Schoenwald died as a result of the explosion. Another four, Loris Becker, Dennis Herlyn, Curt Engbrecht and Ronald DeHoogh suffered serious injuries and were hospitalized.
The explosion forced the closure of the elevator for a time. It went through an ownership change before eventually becoming part of Central Farmers Cooperative. It continues to serve the Marion area to this day.
But Duane and Marlys Tieszen, now both 81 years old, will not forget the impact the incident had on the community, the victims and their families and the responders themselves. Marlys, who tended to some of the victims on scene, will never forget the physical condition of those she saw in the back of her ambulance.
“It took me a year to get over it,” Maryls said. “We debriefed and debriefed, but there are no words for what people look like having gone through an explosion. It’s just awful.”
Being a small community, most everyone in town knew the victims on some level, and the Tieszens were no exception. Marlys recalled speaking to one of the victim’s mothers after he had passed away. Marlys had tended to her son in the ambulance and saw first hand the devastation the explosion wrought on him.
“We went over there and his mother was just sitting there. And I knew her and went up to her and told her I was in the ambulance with him that night,” Marlys said. “And she looked at me like one mother to another and said ‘so you know why I couldn’t pray that he lived.’ And I said yes. It was tough.”
She also saw the impact on Duane, who, as mayor, was involved in nearly every aspect of the emergency response and aftermath, including identifying the bodies. One of those was their nieces’ husband. Swamped with responsibilities, Duane did not attend many of the debriefing sessions other responders went through.
Duane said he finally broke down at one of the victim’s wakes.
“It took a long time. It took a long time,” Duane said.
The explosion made national news, with the Associated Press and United Press International both filing stories on the incident. Duane said he recalled a helicopter circling overhead in the days after the explosion. It was allegedly Gov. Bill Janklow surveying the damage, he said.
Out of all the darkness of the event, some light did emerge.
After the cause of the explosion was determined, modifications were made to help reduce the chance of such an explosion happening in other elevators.
The confusion caused by the responding fire departments not knowing what kind of equipment their associates had available led to the formation of a county association that promotes communication between fire departments so that each knows what the others have on hand in case of a similar emergency.
And training for emergency responders has improved greatly over the years, Duane said.
“The training totally changed after that. They could see that this can happen. That was a plus that came out of it,” Duane said.
The Tieszens, who coincidentally were covering the shift for another couple who also served as EMTs so they could celebrate their anniversary, still live in the same house they did the night of the explosion, just two blocks north of the elevator. Every time they walk outside their front door they can, with just a quick glance to the right, see the elevator that was the center of attention that night.
But they don’t need to see the elevator to remember that night. They insist that those memories will never fade. They remain just as vivid as those three explosions were the night they were sitting in their kitchen, ready to enjoy some ice cream.
“It’s just clear as a bell,” Duane said.