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Update: Two dead, one missing in corn mill blast

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By TODD RICHMOND, Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Recovery crews have pulled one more body from the rubble of a southern Wisconsin corn mill that exploded, but another worker remains missing.

The blast was reported late Wednesday night at the Didion Milling Plant in Cambria, a rural village about 45 miles (72 kilometers) northeast of Madison. At least two workers were killed and nearly a dozen were taken to hospitals following the explosion and fire, which also leveled part of the facility.

The cause of explosion remained unclear Friday. A smaller fire occurred in a different part of the facility on Monday, and investigators were working to determine whether it may be linked to Wednesday’s explosion, said Cambria Fire Chief Cody Doucette.

The plant was reprimanded by federal safety inspectors in 2011 for not taking precautions against dust explosions, which are a major hazard in handling grain, according to U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration records. OSHA investigators are investigating the latest fire.

Columbia County Sheriff Dennis Richards said the body of the second worker was found Thursday. None of the workers has been identified.

“The safety and security of our employees is our top priority,” Didion Vice President of Operations Derrick Clark said in a news release. “Over the past 44 years, the Didion team has grown to be a close-knit family, and we ask for your prayers during this difficult time.”

The plant, which processes corn for ethanol and other uses, was cited in January 2011 for exposing its workers to dust explosion hazards and that plant filters lacked an explosion protective system, according to OSHA records. The federal safety agency ordered the mill to correct the problem by April 2011. The records show Didion paid a $3,465 fine and the case was closed in September 2013.

OSHA hasn’t cited the plant for anything since, the records show. Clark’s statement didn’t address the past citation.

Dust explosions can occur when high concentrations of dust particles are suspended in the air in a confined space during grain handling. A spark from something like a cigarette butt ignites it, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

There were five grain dust explosions in the U.S. last year, including two that were fatal, according to a Purdue University annual report. Keeping facilities clean of dust and equipment in good working order to reduce the possibility of igniting the dust are critical to preventing explosions, the report said.

Emails sent to several Didion officials Thursday and a voicemail left for Vice President of Sales Jeff Dillon weren’t immediately returned. A note posted on the company’s website said the company would be closed until further notice.

Nearly two dozen fire departments and four police departments responded to the Wednesday explosion. Cambria Village President Glen Williams said the fire was contained by early Thursday and there were no evacuations in the area.

Doucette, the local fire chief, said some area residents briefly lost power after the blast. Schools in the Cambria-Friesland district were closed Thursday because of the incident as a precaution, but classes were set to resume Friday with counselors on hand for students, Superintendent Timothy Raymond said.

The sheriff said 16 people were in the plant at the time of the explosion. Eleven people were taken to area hospitals via ambulance and helicopter.

The corn mill is an economic anchor for Cambria, a community of about 770 people, according to Williams.

“Quite a few of the employees live in the village and surrounding area. So it’s going to affect the whole area. Not just the shock of the event, but the economic hardship to the families,” the village president said.

The company employs more than 200 people. It has offices and a soybean plant in Jefferson County to the southwest, the mill and an ethanol plant in Cambria and an oil packaging plant in Green Lake County to the north, according to the company website.

Brothers John and Dow Didion began Didion Milling in 1972 and construction on the Cambria corn mill was completed in 1991, according to the website. The company’s corn products are used in brewing beer as well as in making chips, breakfast cereals, bathroom moldings, steel and ethanol.
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Associated Press writer Gretchen Ehlke in Milwaukee contributed to this report.

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