Families sue over Kansas grain elevator blast

Family members of four people killed in a grain elevator explosion last year in northeast Kansas are suing employees of Bartlett Grain Co., including its current president Bob Knief, less than five months after federal investigators pinned the blame for the blast on the Kansas City, Mo., company.

The wrongful death lawsuits were filed Monday in Jackson County Circuit Court in Missouri on behalf of Bartlett employees Chad Roberts, 20; Ryan Federinko, 21; Curtis Field, 21; and John Burke, 24. They were killed along with two grain inspectors — Travis Keil, 34, and Darrek Klahr, 43 — when the Bartlett elevator exploded Oct. 29, 2011, in Atchison, Kan.

"It hurts as bad today as it did then," Roberts' stepfather, Kevin Bock, said Wednesday. "The feelings don't stop. You learn to work through certain things, but they don't stop."

Bock, whose wife is suing on behalf of Roberts, said he encouraged the other families to also sue Bartlett after the Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued a report in April saying the grain-dust explosion could have been prevented if the elevator's operators had addressed hazards known in the industry.

"Bartlett Grain's disregard for the law led to a catastrophic accident and heartbreaking tragedy for the workers who were injured or killed, their families and the agricultural community," U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis said in April in response to the OSHA report, which sought $406,000 in penalties in addition to citations alleging five willful and eight serious safety violations.

Department of Labor spokesman Scott Allen said the company has contested the citations and fine, and it could take up to a year or more for it to go through the administrative review process.

Bartlett officials have called the OSHA findings flawed and vowed to fight the claims.

When contacted for comment on the lawsuits Wednesday, Bartlett provided the same statement it sent out in April criticizing OSHA's report, though it added a paragraph saying it still believes its employees acted reasonably at all times prior to the explosion.

"While we are just seeing the suit and its allegations, it appears to be based on nothing more or less than the OSHA citations, with which we take total exception and which we therefore, certainly have appealed," the company said.

Ed Dougherty, an attorney for the Bocks and one of the other plaintiffs, said the families of Keil and Klahr have obtained attorneys but aren't involved in the lawsuits filed Monday because the men weren't Bartlett employees and their cases will be handled separately.

The Missouri State Fire Marshal's Office issued a preliminary report in October calling the explosion an accident and saying there was no evidence of criminal activity. The OSHA report, though, came down much harder on the grain company.

Among the willful violations, OSHA alleged Bartlett Grain allowed grain dust, which is nine times as explosive as coal dust, to accumulate and used compressed air to remove dust without first shutting down ignition sources. OSHA defines a willful violation as one committed with intentional knowing or voluntary disregard for the law's requirements or with plain indifference to worker safety and health.

The serious violations, defined as those with a substantial probability of death or serious physical harm, include claims that there was a lack of preventative maintenance and that the housekeeping program was deficient because it didn't prevent grain dust accumulations.

Bock said the company was helpful to the families of the victims, but eventually the stream of communication from Bartlett ran dry. He said he hasn't heard anything from the company since receiving a letter in late June informing families of a memorial the company plans to establish overlooking the Missouri River and the grain elevator in Atchison.

Bock criticized the company for not working with the families on the memorial, noting that the elevator isn't a welcome sight for people who lost loved ones there.

"One thing I can say for the families, especially the three families that live in Atchison, is none of them like the location," Bock said. "They don't want to look over at Bartlett when they see this memorial. They're not going to visit a memorial where they have to look over at that elevator."