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Savage Minnesota grain terminal explodes; at least 2 die

By Elena O. de la Rosa and
Sam Newlund - Staff Writers

Two people died in an explosion and fire Tuesday at the Port Bunge grain terminal in savage. Two others were seriously injured and one man was missing last night.

"The only thing I saw was Don climbing out of the building with is clothes on fire," said grain worker Norm Jensvold, of co-worker Don Kahout, a maintenance man for Bunge corp. who was one of the injured.

"they ripped his clothes off and got him into an ambulance."

"I had just crawled out of the silos about two minutes before the explosions," said Jenswold, who had been cleaning out an empty silo.

"I saw the dust flying out behind me and I heard the rushing -- like a heavy wind -- and I knew what was going to happen. I ran away as hard as I could towards the river --- that's what the employees are supposed to do in case of an explosion."

"As I ran outside I saw the leg (grain conveyor) blow out and all the windows blow out, " Jensvold said.
Jensvold said he only saw smoke coming from the explosion, but others reported a fireball that lasted about 15 seconds.The blast, which occurred at about 1:30 p.m., blew out a wall in a shipping bin, where grain is kept before it goes on to the barges on a conveyor, said Jensvolds.

The explosion sprayed the area with corn and chunks of cement and debris.  Within seconds fire broke out in the head house at the top of the elevator, about 160 feet from the ground.

Identified as the injured men were Kahout and Michael Alexander, 30, Minneapolis, a state grain sampler. they were taken to St. Francis Hospital, Shakopee, for treatment of first and second degree burns.

Clarence Swenson, supervisor of grain inspection for the Department of Agriculture stationed at Bunge, said three men were unaccounted for. The are August Kes, a Minneapolis Grain Exchange weighting supervisor, about 48 years old of Savage; Joe Franek, of New Prague, a weigher with the Bunge Corp., and Jim Galt, a grain sampler-trainee, in his late 20's of St. Paul
Kes and Franek are believed to be the dead men, but officials are withholding positive identification pending lab test by the Hennepin county medical examiner's office

Alexander and a grain sampler-trainee, believed to Galt, were taking samples of grain being loaded on a barge when the explosion occurred, said Ed Moline, director of the state Agriculture Department's grain inspection. Alexander apparently was able to crawl away from the fire.

As rescue workers searched the rubble at the top of the elevator for missing workers, firemen sprayed the remaining silos with water, trying to keep them from building heat and exploding.

Savage Fire chief Mark Bohn said the cause of the fire was not yet known, but that an insufficient water supply and the height of the fire made it difficult to fight.

Fire crews from Shakopee, Burnsville, Prior Lake and Bloomington were called  in to help with the spraying of the silos.
As you can see from the headlines I survived an explosion in October of 1978. There is more to the story, and I would feel honored to have you read about it.

To tell the whole story and to get a picture of who I was and how I perceived my world, allow me to take you back some 15 years prior.  The time was 1962, and we lived in Hopkins, Minnesota.  My older brother Gary, who I greatly admired, went out for wrestling and I followed in his footsteps.  The funny thing was I could wrestle pretty well, and in 1963 we won the state championships.  I felt a great amount of pride in my achievements as an athlete and in my family name.  In Northeast Minneapolis the Alexander family had a reputation for being strong and a tight Lebanese family.  This set a tone for my life.  I continued wrestling in college and afterwards with the Mpls. Wrestling club (Greco Roman).

During my years in college I rejected God and became an atheist denouncing Him and everything to do with the bible. My poor mother was sick about her three sons rejection of God, and she continued to pray earnestly for us.  I remember my brother Dave and I having long heated arguments with her about Jesus, the creation, heaven and hell.  Mom held onto her faith and was continuously encouraging us to believe.  Through the years my mother and wife kept me in their prayers, I remember standing in my in laws kitchen and telling Nellie (my future mother-in-law) that I would never believe.  Her response was "you just wait, you will come back."

In 1975 Jane and I had our first child, Joseph and four more followed in rapid secession (two sets of twins).  This sets the stage for what happened to me following the birth of Nicole and Melissa.  My wife was exhausted from caring for two newborns and three other children under the age of three, and she went to Winona to get help from her family and to regain her strength. 

This was harvest time and the grain elevator (port Bunge on the Minnesota River), where I worked, was busy loading barges around the clock, as well as unloading trucks and rail cars.  Oct. 2 I worked 16 hours and was scheduled to have the next morning off, but Clarence Swenson my supervisor asked me to come back in at 8 in the morning to train in a new guy, (Jim Galt) I didn't want to, but finally agreed.

We were working in Savage, Minnesota on the Minnesota River.  It was around 10:00 A.M., and we were in the head house of the elevator (a super structure that was square in dimension and held conveyor belts, weighing equipment, and misc. electrical equipment, see pictures).  This one had 202 steps to the top.  Jim and I were seated in a room about 10 by 10 feet with no windows and two doorways.  The conveyor belt loading the barge was one floor above us.  We had mechanical equipment taking samples of the grain that was being moved towards the barge.  Small amounts would drop into our room, and we would separate it into even smaller amounts using a piece of equipment called a divider. It would later be graded according to U.S.D.A. standards.  A light hanging from a cord on the ceiling lighted our room, the entry door from the stairway was on my left and the door leading to the mechanical room was to my right directly behind Jim.

Suddenly the door on my left flew open with a tremendous blast and crashed against the cement wall; a hurricane force wind came into the room causing papers to fly through the air.  I can still see the light swinging from side to side reminding me of, and I swear this is true, an old movie named Hurricane in which a light swings back and forth in the same manner.

In the next instant Jim leapt from his chair. He looked right at me. I can still see his face.  Neither of us spoke.  He turned and ran for the door into the mechanical room.  I stood to follow, after taking two steps, for some unknown reason I stopped and turned to face the stairwell door.  Then flames poured into the room as from a flame-thrower filling the room with fire.  I covered my face with my hands, and then the building began to shake with the force of an earthquake knocking me to my knees.  Just at the moment, the steel door Jim ran through fell on top of me and flattened me to the ground.

Concrete chunks from the wall began falling onto the door pounding my pinned body into the floor. Then suddenly it just stopped, and everything was quiet.  Reminded me of a hailstorm because it happened so quickly.  I rose to a kneeling position pushing the door off me.  The room was dark and I couldn't see anything.  After only seconds of silence, the shipping bin burst releasing thousands of bushels of grain.  The room filled with corn burying me alive.  I knew that I would suffocate in a matter of minutes.

At that moment the thought of my family name comes to mind and also that I am a wrestler.  I thought to myself that I am strong, and I come from a strong family.  I can make it.  I gathered myself together in a squatting position and thrust upward with all my strength.  My head poked through the grain, and I gasped for a breath.  Even though the hot dusty air burned as I gulped it down, I felt grateful for it's taste.  I knew that I know had to find the door and the stairs to escape to safety.  As I crawled around the room, I found the divider and know where I am in the room.  The door should know be only six feet away.  So crawling and feeling the wall I searched for the door but was unable to find it.  Frustrated I crawled back to where I started from and tried again, but failed.  Time was running out and I know it.  Alone in the dark with each breath of hot dusty air filling my lungs, I realized my end was near. Having worked in this building for years I can't believe the doorway was lost.  I crawled on my knees and again found the divider and know the doorway was very close, but I was unable to find it, Utter despair came over me.  I had always relied on my own strength to see me through, but now I found myself alone in the dark with no escape and each breath was bringing me closer to death. Kneeling in despair facing my death I prayed in earnest for the first time ever.  There on my knees I asked God for three things.

First I asked God, "is this way I will die".  No answer came.  Again I asked God what about my five children?  Who will take care of them if I am gone?"  No answer came.  My final petition was "God I beg of you, forgive me and take my soul to be with you."   All of a sudden I felt a power come over me like nothing I had ever felt before or since.  It started at my feet and rushed though my body.  I thought my prayer has been answered and God was taking me with him.  I felt so much calmness and peace.  Then something strange happened.  The building shook and a hole opened up above me head.  The sunlight poured down right upon me.  The light of the sun is showing me the way out.  I started to scramble crawling on the pile of grain pulling myself up using the twisted re-bar as support.  I reached the outside. Half of the building is a pile of rubble, and I know Jim is Dead. I slid down to the ground on the two stories of grain.  A block away a group of is yelling and waving me to come over.  The ambulance siren is wailing in the background. I staggered slowly with small steps and finally reached the group.  At first no one recognized me, but I can't figure out why they don't come and help me.  Finally I heard someone say "its Alex I recognize his shoe."  I looked at the ground and sure enough I still had one shoe on, the ambulance  stopped and medics ran towards me with a stretcher, I felt no pain, lying their I hear someone say Donny is alive and soon he is in the ambulance with me. With sirens wailing we head off to St. Francis Hospital In Shokopee.  As we traveled the pain hit me. It`s very hard to describe, if you burn your hand with a match it hurts.  Try and imagine that pain covering all of your hands and face.  The pain was tremendous and I was unable to talk, but silently I thanked God for saving me.  When we reached the emergency room , I given Demerol and  I was able to speak.  I asked the nurses to assure me that I did not look as bad a Donny, who was unrecognizable, of course they kept schussing me to be quiet.  I gave the doctor the phone number of my in-laws house and soon he had my wife on the line telling her that I had been in industrial accident.  Jane tells of the shock and panic she felt, arrangements soon were made for people to care for three oldest children, two of Jane's friends agree to travel with her to see me.  The next day I was transferred to the Hennepin County Medical Center Burn Unit, staffed by a great group of Nurses and filled with about 10 hurting people. A day later I was watching myself on television being interviewed by WCCO news.  My brother Dave came into the burn unit and walked up to where I was sitting. He walked right by me, even though I waved for him to come and sit down, I thought this was odd. Sometime later he told me that as he walked up he did not recognize me and thought to himself , at least my brother does not look as bad as that guy.  I told Dave this same story and repeated it to him more than once, finally he said , "Mike you are not lying, are you". I said, " I swear it's all true, God saved me". He said, " if it's as you say, I believe."

In the weeks that followed I was flooded with prayers and people wanting to help, I healed quickly and after months of rehab was able to resume a semi normal life.

Mike Alexander