A fire hose dangles from the top of a grain silo after a 2019 explosion in Iowa that killed one firefighter and injured another. - Screencapture Via WHBF

A fire hose dangles from the top of a grain silo after a 2019 explosion in Iowa that killed one firefighter and injured another.

Screencapture Via WHBF

A lawsuit charging that negligence by food processing giant Archer Daniels Midland led to the 2019 silo explosion that killed a Clinton, Iowa, firefighter has been filed in district court by the firefighter’s widow.

The suit alleges that the company’s efforts to remove a hardened crust of corn gluten feed pellets inside a silo at its Clinton manufacturing and processing complex inadvertently led to a smoldering fire days before the explosion. ADM responded slowly to the growing emergency, making several key decisions that aggravated the situation, the suit charges.

Once the Clinton Fire Department arrived on the scene, ADM “failed to adequately communicate critical information to fire department personnel,” the petition states.

The allegations are in keeping with an incident narrative report issued by the Iowa Occupational Safety and Health Administration after the blast.  

Joining Kellen Hosette, widow of Clinton Fire Lt. Eric Hosette, as co-plaintiff in the lawsuit is Clinton firefighter Adam Cain who suffered serious injuries in the January 5, 2019, explosion. Both Hosette and Cain fell from the top of the 100-foot-tall silo because of the blast.

Bill Whitters Construction Co. and BWC Industrial Services, LCC, are also named as defendants.

The lawsuit traces issues leading to the explosion back to October 2018 when ADM reportedly manufactured the feed stored in Silo #2 without the additive necessary to prevent hardening over time. This resulted in gradual formation of a “bridge,” a hard, horizontal crust of spoiled material partially up the height of the silo’s interior.

Late in 2018, ADM became aware that the silo had “bridged over,” blocking access to the contents, the suit states. The company hired special contractors to resolve the problem using pressurized air and, later, a high-pressure water system.

In early January it became apparent that “chunks of the bridged material that had fallen to the bottom of the silo was hot, smoldering, and blackened,” the petition states. ADM and the contractor elected to continue using water to break up and remove bridged material.

At least two days prior to the explosion a smoldering fire ignited inside Silo #2, apparently fanned by air flowing through openings at the top and bottom of the silo, the suit states. On the morning of January 5, the Clinton Fire Department received its first notification of the fire.

The suit alleges that ADM, its contractors and the Clinton Fire Department disagreed about how best to attack the fire. Clinton firefighters wanted to open a silo side hatch about 13 feet above the ground and apply water from there.

“The use of the side hatch to fight Silo #2 fire was the fire department’s preferred strategy initially, as well as throughout the fire suppression efforts, due to this strategy’s efficacy and safety advantages for fire-fighting personnel,” the suit states.

According to the lawsuit, the defendants misrepresented the contents and situation inside the silo as unfavorable to the side hatch attempt. Eventually, Hosette and Cain used a catwalk from another structure to reach the roof of the burning silo despite concerns about safety, the suit states.

During the application of water from above, the explosion rocked the silo and knocked Hosette to the ground and dropped Cain inside the silo, the suit states.

“The falls and/or explosion would not have occurred had fire department personnel used their preferred fire suppression method accessing the silo’s side hatch,” the petition says.

The inspection by Iowa OSHA absolved the Clinton Fire Department in the deaths. However, ADM, charged with five separate violation, was fined $55,894. Bill Whitters Construction, charged with one violation, was fined $7,760.

Both companies contested the OSHA findings.  

ADM told KWQC TV that “as a general rule, we do not comment on pending litigation.” Court records show the defendants have not filed a written response to the suit as of Wednesday.