Why Grain Storage Bin Rescues Are Risky And Complex

Grain bin entrapments are so common that some rural fire departments have specially trained teams and customized equipment to rescue victims. When corn or grain trap workers, it is difficult to extract victims, and rescuers have very technical ways to proceed.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

In the last three weeks, emergency responders in three states were called to grain storage bins to rescue trapped workers. Two victims were partially buried in grain but survived, two others were overcome by toxic gases and died. We've been reporting this week about hundreds of deaths in grain bins. Grain bin rescues are risky and complex, as NPR's Howard Berkes reports.

HOWARD BERKES, BYLINE: The rescues usually start with emergency radio calls like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALARM)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Attention, Mount Carroll Fire and Mount Carroll Ambulance, you're needed at 10650 Mill Road. Male subjects stuck in a grain bin. Repeating...

BERKES: This grain bin accident began mid-morning in Mount Carroll, Illinois, on a stifling July day in 2010. It required about 200 rescuers and helpers, with many rotating in and out because of the heat. All kinds of special equipment was hauled in from all over Northern Illinois and it didn't end until long after dark.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Command, this is Carroll, go ahead.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Just confirming, we'll be going on 12 hours then; is that correct?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: That's correct.

BERKES: One worker survived. Two died, including a 14-year-old boy.

Grain rescues are difficult because grain bins are massive - some are four stories high and higher and twice as wide. They hold thousands of bushels of grain, which exert enormous pressure.

DAVE NEWCOMB: If I am buried in grain to my waist, it's going to take 625 pounds of force over my body weight to free me from that grain.

BERKES: Dave Newcomb conducts grain bin rescue training for the Illinois Fire Service Institute. He spoke about bin rescue at a farm safety demonstration in Iowa last fall.

NEWCOMB: That's why we have to go in and uncover the patient. They have to be totally uncovered.

BERKES: Victims have suffered broken legs and dislocated arms when rescuers tried to yank them out. Untrained, inexperienced and ill-equipped rescuers have also become victims, succumbing to the power of the grain.

NEWCOMB: Your human body is far more dense than the grain. And you're dense so you're going to sink to the lowest point. It's just like being shrink-wrapped and it's constantly pushing against you like quicksand.

BERKES: It can be quicker than quicksand. Some victims are completely submerged in under a minute. Digging out even partially buried workers is often impossible, without isolating them from all that grain pressing in. Researchers at Purdue University developed a round grain rescue tube made of interlocking plastic panels. It's jammed into the grain around the victim.

NEWCOMB: And we take a shop vac or coffee cans or anything that we can take, and it's just a matter of removing the grain inside the tube to uncover the victim.

BERKES: There's now a cottage industry of grain tube manufacturers. Hundreds have been deployed to local fire departments and grain elevators, at from three to four thousand dollars apiece. Illinois alone has more than 40 rescue tubes across the state, Newcomb says, along with 30 technical rescue teams with special grain bin training.

But trained crews and equipment and proximity to them varies widely across grain country. Recovering victims often requires draining truckloads of grain from bins.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRAINING CORN)

BERKES: Draining the corn and sometimes bringing out victims requires cutting holes in the bins.

(SOUNDBITE OF SAW)

BERKES: Newcomb demonstrates with a K-12 rescue saw and a small mockup of a steel bin. The bin in Mount Carroll was so thick, saw blades wore out quickly and desperate calls went out for replacements. This is a tricky process. Every hole must be matched with an identical hole on the opposite side or the bin could collapse.

NEWCOMB: I've got a flap that will allow the grain to flow out. That's what I'm looking for. OK?

BERKES: That also takes hours, along with grain vacuums and semi trucks to haul away the grain.

Sometimes simple things make all the difference. The survivor in Mt. Carroll was buried up to his chin and corn kept trickling down from above. A rescuer cut the bottom out of a bucket and put it over the worker's head, saving him from certain suffocation. That trick was demonstrated in a bin rescue class two weeks before. It took six more hours to insert a grain tube, vacuum out the corn, and free the trapped victim.

Howard Berkes, NPR News.

WERTHEIMER: You can find all of Howard's stories in our grain bin series at npr.org. It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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