CHESTER - An explosion and fire Tuesday afternoon in a giant ConAgra grain mill on Chester's riverfront injured four contracted employees who were working inside.

About 40 other people who were in the structure were evacuated and accounted for, firefighters said. When firefighters arrived, workers had already evacuated everyone from the silo.

Three of the injured were airlifted to St. Louis hospitals, two of them to St. Johns Mercy Medical Center and one to Barnes-Jewish Hospital. A fourth worker suffered minor injuries and checked into Chester Memorial Hospital for treatment, a Chester Fire Department spokesman said.

Dozens of firefighters were on hand to fight the blaze. Chester Fire Chief Mike Lochhead said Chester, Ellis Grove, Sparta, Steeleville and Perryville, Mo., all had crews and equipment at the scene on Chester's Water Street. The Campbell Hill department was on standby "with an 80-foot ladder if we need it," Lochhead said.

Sheriff's deputies and police from Chester and other nearby departments diverted traffic from the scene. The Union Pacific Railroad shut down rail traffic in the vicinity of the giant silo and Illinois Power cut off electricity, said Marty Bert, a captain and spokesman for the Chester Fire Department.

Firefighters were taking a cautious approach because of danger of a secondary explosion, Bert said. "Nobody is fighting this fire from the inside," he said. "We are putting water in to cut down on the dust and to extinguish any smoldering fire."

Chester Police Chief Sonny Rinehart said he couldn't recall any explosions in the flour bins in his 23 years of service in Chester.

The four injured workers were employed by a contractor, West Side Salvage, which was cleaning out a silo at the mill for ConAgra, officials said.

Grain dust in a silo can become combustible, but the cause of Tuesday's explosion remained under investigation Tuesday evening.

Randolph County Sheriff Fred Frederking was at the scene Tuesday evening. He said he was told that the silo where the blast occurred had about 6 feet of old soybean meal at the bottom. He said it was his understanding that the contractors were clearing that silo when the blast occurred.

Officials said there were visible flames coming from fans at the bottom of the silo when firefighters first arrived and the blast had blown the top off the silo.

Water was sprayed on the silo as smoke wafted out for several hours after the blast. Bert said firefighters were trying to prevent another explosion or fire.

"The main thing is if we can get water in there, then there's less chance of an explosion," Frederking said. "The idea is to really soak that grain."

Bert said farmers bring grain to the mill, which then sends much of it to local food maker Gilster-Mary Lee. Mill owner ConAgra Foods makes many name brands, including Healthy Choice, Chef Boyardee, Egg Beaters, Orville Redenbacher's, and Banquet,

ConAgra corporate spokeswoman Stephanie Childs said the company is "looking into the specifics of exactly what happened" and wouldn't speculate on a cause for the explosion. She confirmed that the injured were contractors on site.

Childs said ConAgra, which is headquartered in Omaha, Neb., has 40 employees at the Chester site; they are among more than 25,000 employees nationwide.

- Greg Jonsson of The St. Louis Post-Dispatch also contributed to this report.

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