Veteran firefighters reflect on response to DeBruce Grain elevator explosion, 25 years later

Thursday, June 8, marked 25 years since the DeBruce Grain elevator explosion.
Published: Jun. 8, 2023 at 11:06 PM CDT
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WICHITA, Kan. (KWCH) - Twenty five years ago Thursday, what at the time was the world’s larges grain elevator exploded southwest of Wichita, killing seven and injuring 10. The results and recovery efforts by emergency crews at the DeBruce Grain elevator went on for weeks.

On June 8, 1998, Sedgwick County firefighters Ray Hensley and Robert Timmons responded to the hectic scene southwest of Wichita. Hensley as off-duty at a hospital with family when he heard the explosion.

“We heard the explosion and kina felt, heard the windows shake,” he said.

Hensley had no idea what happened until his chief called him.

“I was like, What’s going,’ and he said, ‘DeBruce elevator blew up,’” Hensley recalled.

When he did get on scene...

“There was huge, massive chunks of concrete the size of cars hanging off the side of the building, and they didn’t want us around there for the potential something might still collapse,” Hensley said. “Then finally (they) said, ‘Hey, we need to start a rescue operation.’”

It was an operation that then-rookie rescue fighter Timmons wasn’t prepared for.

“I was on the rescue team, and how do you train for that?” he said.

But Hensley and Timmons got to work. It wasn’t easy as grain fell on top of more grain.

“Every time you’d try to gain an inch, you lost that inch,” Hensley said.

Inch by inch, rescues were successful. Firefighters from departments across south central Kansas saved lives through mutual aid agreements, which have only improved with time.

“We’ve since enhanced them to (be) a lot more beneficial. To me, it doesn’t matter what the side of the truck says,” Hensley said.