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Fire destroys elevator

File Photo: A dust fire engulfed the United Co-op Thursday afternoon in Rushmore, as eight fire departments fought to contain the blaze. The elevator was destroyed. (Brian Korthals/Daily Globe)

RUSHMORE -- Nine area fire departments spent the better part of Thursday afternoon battling a blaze that consumed the United Farmers Cooperative grain elevator in Rushmore and required residents from two neighboring houses to be evacuated. No injuries were reported, although at least one ambulance crew was called because of concerns of potential heat exhaustion among firefighters.

Fire departments were paged just before 2:30 p.m. to the blaze, with Rushmore, Adrian and Worthington getting the first call for help.

Nearly an hour after the fire was reported, the elevator collapsed into a heap of rubble, bringing audible gasps from bystanders watching their city's landmark disappear in a cloud of flames and smoke.

Sadie Groenewold, an Adrian High School student who lives in Rushmore, was watching the fire from a nearby front yard with two friends when the structure completely gave way.

"My dad (Larry Groenewold) was up here when it started, getting feed for the cattle," Groenewold said. "They were welding there, and they just had a spark start, I guess. ... They were throwing things out the top to get out."

Jason Hieronimus, a firefighter with the Rushmore Fire Department, said the welding was being done at the top of the wooden elevator on the site.

"They did tell us they were doing some work -- some welding," Hieronimus said while taking a break at the Rushmore Fire Hall shortly after 7:30 p.m. "That's all we know at this time. We don't know if that's what started the fire or not."

Hieronimus, who arrived on the scene shortly after the page rang out, said he saw white smoke, black smoke and flames stretching 100 to 120 feet in the air. They quickly realized they were going to need more equipment and manpower.

"We weren't gaining any ground on the fire, so we called for the aerial units," he said.

Aerial trucks and firefighters were requested from both the Worthington and Luverne fire departments, while tankers, pumpers and manpower were needed from Bigelow, Wilmont, Lismore, Ellsworth, and Little Rock, Iowa.

Water was hauled in not only from area fire departments, but also from local farmers. Hieronimus said farmers brought in plastic tanks on trailers filled with water to aid in the firefight.

"We had a road construction company that brought a semi with 8,000 gallons of water on it," he said. "They were working down by Little Rock."

As firefighters battled the blaze, Alma Wiertzema and Rosella Brunk marveled at the fire.

"My husband used to work at the co-op store," Wiertzema said. "He worked there for 30 years, and her (Brunk's) husband worked for him. I just wonder what they would say if they'd seen this."

Don Watry of rural Adrian -- he lives about five miles west of Rushmore -- said he drove eastward to see where the smoke was coming from.

"I had a bunch of grain that I was going to be bringing here, but it doesn't look like I'm going to be doing that," Watry said about 30 minutes before the elevator collapsed. "We were going to do that tomorrow."

Black smoke was visible along Interstate 90 from Worthington in the early stages of the fire. Witnesses said the flames intensified relatively quickly.

"I was walking uptown, and I think I heard more of a crash than an explosion," Brunk explained.

"It was so black," Wiertzema added. "At first, I thought it was the bank. ... and then I said, 'My God, what was that?'"

The grain elevator contained both corn and soybeans, although just how much is still unknown. The site manager could not be reached for comment Thursday night.

Hieronimus said the heat was "very intense."

"It seemed like every direction around the scene -- north, south, east and west -- there was an extreme amount of heat," he added.

Damage to the United Farmers Co-op was contained to the grain storage facility, while a mechanics repair truck was destroyed, and a tractor that belonged to the elevator sustained minimal damage. The office, which is a separate building from the elevator, was not damaged, Hieronimus said.

"We don't know how we can thank all of the area departments, the area farmers and the area town people (who brought) refreshments," Hieronimus said. "The Red Cross brought supper out for us, and the Pizza Ranch out of Luverne brought pizza over.

"The whole department, the town of Rushmore and United Farmers Co-op would like to thank those people that helped," he added.

Hieronimus noted that the local CD Café and PD's Bar both provided water at the scene, while a neighboring wholesale business, R.E. Brokers, provided a "whole fleet of guys" to help pull fire hoses and chip in wherever they were needed. Gary's Electric of Rushmore provided its aerial truck for firefighters to gain better access to the flames.

Shortly after 7 p.m., the last of the departments providing mutual aid headed home, leaving the Rushmore Fire Department to monitor the smoldering grain and wooden elevator remains.

"There is still some hot spots -- some flames rearing up that we've got to keep under control," Hieronimus said. "We'll stay at the scene until we get it extinguished or we get the OK from United Farmers Co-op to start the demolition."

Julie Buntjer

Julie Buntjer joined the Globe newsroom in December 2003, after working more than nine years for weekly newspapers. A native of Worthington, she has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism. Find more of her stories of farm life, family and various other tidbits at

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