April 24, 2015, began as a benign spring morning, by ordinary measures. The fire marshal’s report says the temperature was 59 degrees, with a soft wind of 8 mph blowing out of the east through the gently sloping meadows and hardwood forests of the Land Between the Lakes, in Western Kentucky.
Silver Trail Distillery founder and owner Spencer Balentine began the day at about 7 a.m. and lit the 300-gallon wash still. As the propane-fired Revenoor was coming up to temperature, distiller Jay Rogers arrived for his shift, and Balentine left to have breakfast at his house on the property. Halfway there, he met his wife, Sheila, who was bringing a fresh-cooked breakfast to Rogers.
“That’s a good job—when your boss’s wife brings you breakfast every day. That’s a good thing,” Rogers said to a full room that had come to hear his story at the ADI Spirits Conference and Vendor Expo.
Rogers said he sat in the distillery, eating his bacon and eggs while the still climbed to temperature. Shortly after 10 a.m., assistant distiller Kyle Rogers arrived for the day. Kyle was a distant cousin, about 14 years younger. Kyle had grown up with Jay in the Land Between the Lakes, for which Silver Trail’s LBL Moonshine is named. Kyle had taken a liking to his older cousin Jay, and Jay looked out for his little buddy.
The two distillers made the heads cut and began collecting distillate from a sugar-and-corn mash. The wash still was running fast and clean. Several gallons of low wines came quickly off the Revenoor and the two distillers were proud of the clean taste.
“It was one of the better runs that I have ever witnessed coming off of that still,” said Rogers. “At proof, rate, clarity, so it was telling me pretty quick that it wasn’t stopped up.” They stood about four or five feet from the still, talking about this and that. Jay was telling Kyle that the author John Grisham had once been drafted to play Major League Baseball, when… the Revenoor exploded.
“We had no warning—no nothing. I mean, there was no steam. There was no whistle. There was no…” Rogers’s voice trailed off as he looked for words, then fell flat. “There was nothing.”
The force of the blast propelled the 300-gallon pot outside the building, colliding with two metal doors during its flight. It lay 50 feet away, folded and contorted like an open sardine can, said Rogers. The eight-foot packed column flew an additional 20 to 25 feet, and the manway cover lay more than 90 feet away.
“Next thing I knew, I was laying on my right side in roughly about two inches of 200-degree mash. I could look up ahead and I could see Kyle, who was unresponsive,” said Jay Rogers.
After getting himself up, his attention immediately went to Kyle, who was also lying in a pool of scalding mash. “I spoke to Kyle, tried to get him conscious. That was not working,” said Rogers. “He was a big-ole boy and it wasn’t very easy for me to do, considering the injuries that had already set in: I just started grabbing and tugging and getting a hold of anything I could, and proceeded to drag him, made him crawl, whatever I could to get him outside of the building.”
On the lawn outside, Kyle stooped to the ground doing what appeared to Jay as a “stop, drop and roll,” but Jay had been partially blinded by scalding wash in his eyes and could see not flames. Alcohol does not burn at a color that is easily seen. Jay believes now that Kyle was on fire.
Cause of Explosion
Jay Rogers appeared at the ADI Conference to recount the details of this tragic, freak accident along with his best friend Jeffrey Holmes, who also works in the industry, including five years at the Maker’s Mark Distillery. Holmes read a statement from Silver Trail Distillery owner Spencer Balentine that said, “Let me be very clear that the Kentucky State Fire Marshal, as well as other trained experts, have determined that the accident was ultimately caused by over-pressurization due to a design flaw on the part of Revenoor still company.”
Holmes said that Revenoor Company pressure-tests their stills at 3 psi and welds showed cracks at 5 psi. He said that the pressure relief valve installed at the factory was rated at 150 psi—of a type commonly used for water heaters but inappropriate for a still. The report said, “Being that the still was not designed or intended to be a pressure vessel, a pressure relief valve rated at 150 psi appears very excessive.”
“This scenario is much like putting a penny in a fuse box because fuses keep blowing,” Holmes said. “It may fix the problem temporarily but it will lead to bigger problems down the road.”
The fire marshal reports contacting Terry Wilhelm, of Revenoor, asking why a temperature and pressure relief valve was used in the still if it was not a pressure vessel. The report said, “He answered that it was primarily to keep the lawyers away and to act as a backup in case the unit was blocked.” The report went on to conclude that glass beads used to pack the still’s column may have obstructed the vapor path and this could cause pressure to build up, resulting in catastrophic failure.
In a May 22, 2015, interview with Mark Gillespie for Whiskycast.com, Wilhelm said, “The only thing that could have possibly happened is that something got plugged on the output line and it was able to build up pressure. That’s the only thing that could have happened.” Wilhelm also commented that the Silver Trail still was out of warranty. “I don’t know how many hundreds of times Spencer has run this thing,” Wilhelm said. “It has obviously performed flawlessly for several years.” Rogers said that he had personally run this still more than 200 times.
Rogers said the column containing the glass beads was welded shut at the factory and not accessible for servicing. When the column was opened up and examined, the fire marshal and other experts concluded it is likely that the glass beads, used to create reflux, could have seated in the vapor path causing pressure to build up—a finding that Wilhelm disputes.
Wilhelm told Distiller that the design of the column made it impossible for one of the marbles to block the vapor path. Wilhelm said, “That still could not have built up 10 pounds of pressure, no less 150.”
The fire marshal’s report said, “All indications are that the event directly involved the over-pressurization of the still with subsequent failure which resulted in it being propelled out the north end of the structure.”
Kentucky courts have ruled by default in favor of Rogers and Silver Trail. The injured parties were awarded $16 million in damages but it is an award that they may never be able to collect. According to Rogers, Revenoor Company has presented no evidence of liability insurance. Rumors circulate that the company is near bankruptcy. There simply may be nothing to collect.
“In order to get the dollars from the company, they have to have the dollars, or else they have to have the insurance that provides it,” Charles Moore, an attorney for the plaintiffs, told WPSD-TV, in Paducah, KY, “and we’re concerned that they may in fact be broke and that they may not have insurance.”
The Kentucky Distillers’ Association (KDA) has created “Lifting Spirits – Jay & Kyle Rogers Support Fund,” where people can contribute to help Jay and Kyle’s family. ADI contributed $9,000—half the proceeds from this year’s charitable auction—to the fund and asks the distilling community to continue making contributions to this fund.
Rogers commended the financial support and the emotional outpouring from the extended distilling community and their suppliers that supported him and other patients at the burn unit during his ordeal. He said KDA responded not just to himself, but to the needs of the nurses, doctors and other patients in the unit when they needed anything, no matter the hour of day or night.
“It has restored my faith in humanity, because I do know that there’s good people out there,” said Rogers. “And the distilling families: They are the ones that were out there.”
After the Blast
On that fateful morning, Sheila Balentine heard the explosion from her kitchen, which sounded similar to a car backfiring, and alerted her husband Spencer that something was wrong over at the distillery. From the kitchen window, the Balentines could see that the metal doors were blown out, with a sickly green fog billowing from the building.
Spencer Balentine immediately ran to the distillery to find Kyle and Jay Rogers already outside. Jay was hollering to shut off the gas, and Balentine did so immediately. The building was still standing, but something was burning on a wall inside. Soon it would be smoldering ruin. Balentine retrieved the two severely injured distillers to his home. They were airlifted to the Vanderbilt University Medical Center, in Nashville, TN.
On May 11, 2015, Kyle Rogers died from his injuries. Jay’s wounds were so extensive that only 2% of people in his condition are expected to survive. He said, “Around 65% burned and 35 to 36 years of age usually equals death. I am 41 and 87% covered. There’s no way for me to explain it except for divine intervention.”
He remained in the ICU burn unit for two months of agonizing treatment, called hydrotherapy, which included almost-daily deep-scrubbings of the wounds to prevent infection. But Rogers makes light of what he went through: “They took me to a room, which it sounds fun. It sounds like it’s going to be a nice hot tub and stuff like that—it’s called hydrotherapy—but really, it’s a torture chamber.”
“If I couldn’t sit here today and smile about these things and have a good sense of humor about all of this, then I can tell you that it would have taken me down,” he said.
Rogers credits two former burn patients working at the hospital with keeping him grounded. One was a former patient at the same ICU, whose face had been reconstructed beautifully and was only outshone by her chipper personality as she cleaned up around the beds. The other was a Vietnam War veteran and POW who had been severely burned in a grenade accident.
“The one thing that he said when he came to the hospital is, ‘Above all else, just do not lose your sense of humor.’ He was like: ‘I know this is tough. I know this is hard,’ he said, ‘but you have to search and look and find something to laugh about,’” said Rogers.
A Call for Safety
This tragic story highlights only one of the dangers that can be hidden in a distilled spirits plant. Distilleries use fire, steam, flammables, caustics and many other things that can be maintained safely but can also turn hazardous in a split second. Rogers urged distillers to have an OSHA-trained boiler expert inspect their stills, and to have any equipment that was bought online thoroughly checked out.
“I want to take this as the opportunity it is and make this a safer place for all of us,” said Rogers. “I know this is a hard business to get into. I do. But I can also see some ways that corners have been cut and ways that we can block those corners to keep something like this from happening to
Holmes said, “We as an industry want to be as safe as possible. We don’t want to see anyone hurt.”
In a recent distillery tour, ADI staff members saw a beautiful-looking, recently manufactured still with the pressure relief valve attached off the condenser near the parrot, a placement that would be useless in preventing an accident similar to the one at Silver Trail. With more visitors coming to tour distilleries, these hazards not only affect workers, but also tourists.
“You are dealing with a lot more tourists now, so it is imperative that your distilleries and your equipment—if you are actually opening up your doors to the public—you need to have every safety measure in place. Regardless if you think you are safe: That’s when you get into trouble,” said Holmes, whose job at the Maker’s Mark Distillery included mandatory, monthly safety inspections. “You can never be too safe.”
One Year Later
It’s been more than a year since the accident, and Rogers sums up his situation. “I am still in a healing process,” said Rogers. “I still suffer from PTSD. I still attend on a weekly basis a mental health counselor. I still, two to three days a week, attend physical therapy. I went into the hospital at roughly 140 pounds. I came out of the hospital at 186 pounds. And so I have dieted and got back to where I want to be. In ways I am healthier than I was before I went in. But in ways I am scarred in places that will never heal.”
“I am happy to be here. I am happy to be alive,” he said. “But it’s also been a year and it’s still the first thing I think of in the morning and it’s the last thing I think of at night.”
Rogers suffers from a recurring nightmare. In the dream, he is sitting in pitch black waiting for it to happen, waiting for the same thing every time: Like waiting for a jack-in-the-box to burst out. And though there were no flames in the original blast, in the dream, he is consumed by a fireball and jumps… waking in the air, a foot and a half over his bed.
Until the nightmares dissipate, Jay tries to hold on to his sense of humor and to find memories of a happier time: When a rambunctious 5-year-old Kyle adventured away from a Florida road-stop, unseen by the adults. The first to spot him wandering into highway traffic lanes was his teenage cousin,
Jay, who quickly ran to grab young Kyle, scooping his little buddy up into his arms and coming back a hero.