UNION MILLS | James Swank liked hard work and despite being up in years always looked physically up to the task.
“He seemed to be pretty spry. He didn't seem to have a problem doing stuff,” said Bob Dawson, a neighbor of the 67-year-old Swank who died Monday in a grain silo explosion in Union Mills.
Investigators on Tuesday were continuing to probe for the cause of the blast at the Union Mills Co-Op strong enough to shake nearby houses.
On Tuesday evening, a fire started in the building and flames and smoke were visible, LaPorte County sheriff's police said. The fire was put out by 9 p.m. and there were no reported injuries.
Officials blocked off nearby traffic. Nearby residents were temporarily evacuated Tuesday evening as a precaution.
According to a prepared statement released Tuesday by operators of the Co-Op, Co-Alliance LLC, preliminary indications are that Monday's explosion occurred at the top of the grain elevator.
Although officials are still investigating, their focus is on grain dust ignition, according to the company.
Shawn Lambert, a safety manager at the Co-Op, said investigators with the Indiana State Fire Marshal's Office and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives went inside the heavily damaged silo last evening to start looking for the cause.
Lambert said Swank was on a work platform on the outside of one of the concrete silos near the top when the explosion occurred.
He was either dropping a measuring tape into one of the silos containing grain to determine how full the silo was or doing other work like sweeping or cleaning the outside work station, said Lambert.
“We believe he was doing either inventory or basic housekeeping,” said Lambert, who added “that would have been his typical practice doing one or two of those items.”
According to LaPorte County Police, the impact from the explosion caused him to fall 110 feet landing between the silo and a railroad spur serving the facility.
Dawson said Swank and his wife, Vickie, often worked in their yard and garden and he also heard or saw Swank inside his garage running a saw and doing other handy man type work.
“He was always busy doing something,” said Dawson.
Lambert said Swank worked for the Co-Op the past seven years.
“He was a very pleasant gentleman,” said Lambert.
Gene Matzat, an educator at the Purdue Extension Office in LaPorte, said grain is dried down after harvest and over time when grain is put in and taken out of silos a dust off the grain can accumulate in the silos.
He said the dust is combustible if it comes into contact with a spark or some other ignition source.
“That dust, if it does get ignited, can cause an explosion,” said Matzat.