DIXON – It was Dec. 5, a Tuesday morning like any other, and father-and-son farmers Rory and Ryan Miller were in the field northeast of Nachusa Road and state Route 38 with a couple of young workers, installing drainage tile on land they had leased for years.
They'd laid about 400 feet when the tiling plow on the Challenger 865 tractor got stuck on something underground. They strapped a second tractor, a smaller Challenger 855, to its front end. The plan was to pull through the obstruction, something they'd done before.
What the Millers didn't know – because no one had called underground pipeline and utilities locator JULIE – was the obstruction was a 20-inch high-pressure natural gas pipeline. The tug ruptured the pipe.
Kyler Ackland, 21, of West Brooklyn, was feeding the drain tile into the plow; the blast launched him clear of the site. He took off running south, and escaped with only scratches.
As he ran past the lead tractor, the blowing gas ignited.
Michael Koster, 21, of Sterling, who was sitting on a Caterpillar backhoe used earlier in the day to hunt for existing tile, took off running west, but he couldn't outrun the heat. He was burned over 60 percent of his body, and would remain hospitalized or in rehabilitative care for 2 months.
The Millers jumped off their tractors and also tried to flee south, but were overcome by the heat and flames.
Rory Miller of Amboy, was 59; his son, Ryan, of Oregon, was 30. They died in the field.
Type of failure: Third-party damage.
In other words, human error.
That's the conclusion of an investigation by the U.S. Department of Transportation's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, which was dated April 2 but not made public until Monday, when it was posted on the PHMSA's website.
Rory Miller and his wife, Kathy, Ryan Miller and his wife Jill, and Mark and Gloria Nusbaum were partners in M&R Farms, at 1684 Nachusa Road.
Although required by state law, the farm did not contact JULIE – Joint Utility Locating Information for Excavators – before beginning the tiling project, which is puzzling: Records show M&R Farms had a history of checking in with the agency before digging, and had in fact made 18 notifications in 2016 and '17, eight for tiling jobs, the report said.
The farm office had "numerous" Natural Gas Pipeline Company of America mailings from 2011 to 2016 still on hand.
In addition, someone from the farm – the report does not say who – contacted landowner Keith Spangler 3 months before the dig, and were reminded of JULIE's Illinois One Call Program, in which the farm was enrolled, it said.
"PHMSA's investigation concluded that the cause of the failure was third-party damage. The pipeline was buried at a depth greater than that required. ... Despite M&R Farm's familiarity with excavation notices and their receipt of public awareness documentation, no excavation notice was provided for this tiling work.
"It is possible that this incident might have been prevented if such a notice was provided."
The total cost of the damage was $888,700. About $600,000 of that was equipment – the two tractors and the backhoe, the tiling plow, two pickup trucks and a tile spool trailer.
The NGPL line was operated by Kinder Morgan, which replaced 41 feet of pipe and had the line back in service the afternoon of Dec. 9.
According to the Lee County Recorder's Office, M&R Farms, which was established in 1996, was sold to Tettens Family Farm LLC for $3.143 million. The deed was recorded the first week in April.
According to state law, anyone planning an outdoor project that requires digging, regardless of the depth or the size of the project, must notify Joint Utility Locating Information for Excavators at least 2 business days before work begins.
JULIE's Call Center agents process requests 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, free of charge.
Call 811 or 800-892-0123 to place a local request. Go to illinois1call.com/faqs.html for more information.