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40 years later, Saunders reflects on 1981 grain dust explosion

Grain Elevator Explosion Anniversary.jpg
Posted at 10:37 AM, Apr 08, 2021
and last updated 2021-04-08 11:40:00-04

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas — Although footage of the horrifying incident can appear grainy, the day of the 1981 explosion is still clear to Kevin Saunders.

“I saw the walls of those grain elevators — some the size of a car being blown hundreds of feet through the air,” Saunders said, adding that each explosion rivaled the sound of thunder. “Every explosion got bigger… Before I could even take another breath, that 12th and biggest explosion exploded where we were at — completely destroyed the building we were in — left nothing but the concrete foundation.”

Saunders, who had been working as a federal inspector for the United States Department of Agriculture recalls being blown through the roof of a two-story building and landing on concrete. His skull had been crushed and his scapulas were fractured. He said he had been “black-flagged” or presumed dead.

“The force of the blast blew my legs over my torso, so my body was broken over right here at my chest,” he said. “One paramedic stayed around. He took my pulse and I had a faint pulse and they got a fire and rescue guy from the firetruck.

“They sorted through the debris, found a blown-off door, put me on that, used it as a makeshift stretcher and put me in the back of the station wagon and that’s how we got to Memorial Medical Center.”

Despite the explosion causing him to be paralyzed from the chest-down, Saunders moved on to continue his career of athleticism, paving the way toward national recognition. He visited the site of where the explosion had happened today. Although the facility where it happened has since faded away, Saunders made it a point to revisit and reflect.

“You got to keep your faith,” he said. “There’s always a way when you never give up.”

Saunders, who is also a renowned motivational speaker, said he sees his wheelchair as a symbol to not let his physical challenges define himself.

“Don’t let that get you down, get on top of it, take advantage of it — do your very best,” he said. “Like we tell the guys a Kansas State University on the football team, try to get a little bit better every time you go out there, constantly and never ending improvement.

“If I could do it in a wheelchair paralyzed from the chest down — imagine what you can do or anybody else that’s on their feet. If you want something bad enough, you just got to visualize it over and over, and what do you think about most is what you’ll become.”

Saunders said he has recently moved back to Corpus Christi with his wife Dora Ortiz — who was the RN who take care of him at the time of the explosion.

As he continues to work on his varied careers, Saunders said he happy to call the Coastal Bend his home.