AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.
In this part of the program, we're going to shine a light on a dangerous and illegal practice that's happening at farms and commercial grain elevators across the country. It's called walking down the grain and it kills, on average, 16 people a year. Farmers and workers climb into massive storage bins, trying to break up clogged grain.
NPR and the Center for Public Integrity have been investigating the practice and efforts to stop it. And they found weak enforcement, even when employers blatantly put workers in danger. Here's NPR's Howard Berkes with our report.
HOWARD BERKES, BYLINE: A grain storage bin may seem like an obscure workplace. But lives lost in grain, and the government's response, show what's at stake for all kinds of workers when employers break the law and consequences are weak. We begin in a hilltop cemetery in Mount Carroll, Illinois. It's a town of 1,700.
(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)
WILL PIPER: Spent Christmas here. Had to come see them on Christmas, you know? No one should spend Christmas alone.
BERKES: This is Will Piper, tall and lean with close-cropped, red hair beneath a black ski cap. He stops at the grave of his best friend, Alex Pacas. There's no gravestone - just red, plastic flowers and a small, plastic marker leaning cockeyed. Piper places his gloves on the soft, wet earth, kneels on them and leans forward, face to grave.
PIPER: This place is very meaningful for me because he's buried here. His body's here. When I touch the ground, I just feel connected with him.
BERKES: Pacas was 19, and Piper had just turned 20, when they drove to work together on a stifling July day in 2010. There, they joined their buddy Wyatt Whitebread, just 14 years old. He's also buried here beneath a framed photo on a metal post. It shows a sandy-haired boy with a grin so big, he seems like the happiest kid on earth. Carla Whitebread remembers her son's first days of work at the grain bins.
CARLA WHITEBREAD: He and I were really close, and we talked about everything throughout his whole life. But he didn't tell me that he was running down the corn. He said he was never in corn higher than his knee; and I pictured him with a scoop shovel, shoveling corn.
BERKES: But days later, Wyatt, Alex and Will were sent into bin No. 9 to walk down the corn. It's here on the edge of Mount Carroll, in a complex of bins owned at the time by Haasbach LLC, a partnership of three farm families. And it's a behemoth - four stories high and twice as wide, and about half-full that day. The kernels in it were wet and crusty, clogging the drain hole at the bottom and sticking to the walls. So Wyatt, Alex and Will were sent in with shovels and picks.
PIPER: The supervisor opened up a second hole, and it created a quicksand effect. And Wyatt ended up getting caught up in it and started screaming for help. Me and Alex went in after him, and we each grabbed one side of him under his armpits and started dragging him out, and got pretty close to the edge of the quicksand. And then we started sinking in with him. Wyatt went under. And then me and Alex kept sinking deeper and deeper, up to our chests, completely - just trapped in the corn.
BERKES: It was about 10 a.m. when another friend and worker frantically called for help.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED 911 CALL)
UNIDENTIFIED MILL EMPLOYEE: (Yelling to co-workers) I'm on it!
UNIDENTIFIED DISPATCHER #1: Nine-one-one, what's your emergency?
UNIDENTIFIED MILL EMPLOYEE: Hi, I have a person stuck in a hole in a grain bin, up at the mill in Mount Carroll, Illinois.
UNIDENTIFIED DISPATCHER #1: OK, give me your address.
BERKES: Matt Schaffner, the supervisor of the facility, desperately tried to dig - but the kernels just flowed back in. So he climbed out of the bin to guide arriving rescuers. Alex Pacas screamed he didn't want to die.
PIPER: One last chunk of corn came flowing down and went around his face. And I still had one arm free, and I tried to sweep it away from his face as much as I could. And eventually, there was just too much. And after a little bit, his hand was sticking up above the grain. And I could just see his scalp, and his hand stopped moving. And the corn was up to my chin, at that point.
BERKES: The first rescuer appeared, harnessed and tethered to keep from sinking. He held a 5-gallon bucket with the bottom cut out.
PIPER: He slammed it down to my shoulders and scooped all the corn, to get it away from my face so I could breathe. I didn't think they'd be able to get me out of there because the pressure was just so great.
BERKES: Emergency radio traffic buzzed with pleas for help.
(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO DISPATCHES)
UNIDENTIFIED RESCUE WORKER #1: Oh, my God, we need everything - grain vacs...
UNIDENTIFIED RESCUE WORKER #2: Really?
UNIDENTIFIED RESCUE WORKER #1: ...K-12 blades, to cut into the bin...
UNIDENTIFIED RESCUE WORKER #3: We need approximately 12 semis for unloading grain.
UNIDENTIFIED RESCUE WORKER #4: Can you have them go to Eastland Feed and pick up their grain tube? Pick up the grain tube from Eastland Feed.
BERKES: Rescuers pounded a plastic grain tube into the corn, and around Alex and Will. They then used grain vacuums to extract the kernels inside the tube with the teens.
PIPER: After about an hour went by, they had uncovered Alex's face. And then after a couple more hours, his whole body was exposed. And I had to actually lean in and hug him so they could vacuum out behind me. And they got it down to at my waist and tried pulling me out, and that wasn't working. So they had to keep vacuuming, keep vacuuming...
BERKES: Will was trapped for six hours before he was finally freed. It took another six hours to find Wyatt's body in the corn.
BERKES: (SOUNDBITE OF RADIO DISPATCH)
UNIDENTIFIED RESCUE WORKER #5: Carroll County from command.
UNIDENTIFIED DISPATCHER #2: Go ahead, command.
UNIDENTIFIED RESCUE WORKER #5: Carroll, will you mark time? All rescue complete.
UNIDENTIFIED DISPATCHER #2: Ten-four, command.
BERKES: The dusty bodies were brought out long after dark, skin pockmarked like golf balls from the pressure of the corn. At a church nearby, Annette Pacas brushed Alex's black hair, and used a wet cloth to wipe away the filth. Will later told her about her son's final moments.
ANNETTE PACAS: He prayed the "Our Father" - our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
It was a long time before I could say that prayer again because every time I went to say it, I heard the panic in my son's voice as he was saying that prayer. It's one of the things, as a mom, that I've really struggled with - is that my son died in terror. He didn't die in peace; he died in terror. And it didn't have to happen.
BERKES: The federal labor department cited Haasbach LLC for employing underage workers; for failing to train them; for having them illegally walk down the grain; for not providing required safety harnesses, which were actually hanging in a shed near the bin; and for running the conveyor belt beneath the bin, while the boys were working inside. That, and the open hole, created the quicksand effect that trapped them.
Here's John Newquist, who recently retired as assistant regional administrator for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
JOHN NEWQUIST: These rules have been around forever. They're not rocket science. It doesn't take a lot of money to comply with this. It's insane that this is not outrageous by everybody.
BERKES: And it's not just Mount Carroll. More than 660 workers and farmers drowned in grain in the last 40 years, according to Purdue University data; 1 in 4 were teens and younger. 2010 was a record year, with 26 bodies pulled from grain. Adults with grain experience, in Mount Carroll, know the danger. Lisa Jones and her children were close to Wyatt, Alex and Will.
Have you heard of the phrase, walking down the corn?
LISA JONES: Yeah, my family farms. Somebody dies every year, it seems like; not in our town but all over, people die in the corn.
BERKES: The Jones family is also close to the family of Matt Schaffner, the manager of the Mount Carroll grain bins.
JONES: It's just been a devastating thing for their family, and for Matt. He's the most - like, gentle, kind person, you know. He would die a million deaths to save either of those boys.
BERKES: Schaffner and his attorney did not respond to requests for comment. Haasbach faces civil lawsuits for wrongful injury and death, along with Consolidated Grain and Barge, a conglomerate that leased the facility. They declined comment. OSHA initially hit Haasbach with a $550,000 fine, one of its highest ever for grain bin deaths. The agency alleged willful and egregious behavior, and sought state and federal criminal charges.
David Michaels is OSHA's administrator.
DAVID MICHAELS: We sent a very strong letter to 13,000 grain mill operators, saying, look, people are being killed. This is the law. We're doing more enforcement. You have to follow the law.
BERKES: But after all the tough talk, OSHA settled with Haasbach, cutting the fine more than half.
MICHAELS: We had them open their books, and we determined that $200,000 was the appropriate fine. This company also agreed to go out of business.
BERKES: OSHA is sending mixed messages to the industry, says Ron Hayes. He lost his son Patrick in a grain bin in Florida, in 1993.
RON HAYES: If this was the first time this had ever happened, I could see leniency. But because this happens time and time again, year after year after year, there is no leniency.
BERKES: The grain industry is focused on education and training. Jeff Adkisson heads the Grain and Feed Association of Illinois.
JEFF ADKISSON: I think we have increased the safety awareness, and I think we are doing a better job. Have tragic incidents still happened? Yes. Are we working to reduce them even further? Absolutely.
BERKES: But Ron Hayes and OSHA began education and training efforts 20 years ago, after Hayes' son died in grain. It's time, he says, for OSHA to get tough and stay tough.
HAYES: They should pay the full fines. Somebody should be prosecuted. And until we do this, until OSHA has the backbone to stand up to do this, we will never see this stopped.
BERKES: NPR and the Center for Public Integrity reviewed close to 180 grain deaths in which OSHA responded. Fines were cut more than 60 percent of the time and were slashed, on average, more than half. The five biggest fines ever, plunged 50 to 97 percent. Criminal prosecutions are rare. No charges were filed in the Mount Carroll tragedy. We'll be looking at that more tomorrow, on NPR's MORNING EDITION; as well as the weaknesses in federal law, and the resistance of prosecutors as some employers continue to put workers at risk.
Back at the cemetery in Mount Carroll, Ill., survivor Will Piper says he leans close to the grave of Alex Pacas to pray, and to talk.
PIPER: It's just me feeling the ground, letting him know what's going on. I think he'd want me to move on from this.
BERKES: Nearly three years later, Piper struggles with the loses and the memories. He tells me later he wants to raise money, somehow, for a permanent gravestone for Alex.
PIPER: I felt guilty that I got Alex a job; that I wasn't able to save Wyatt; that I wasn't able to save Alex. I think that'll be like, a living amend.
BERKES: Piper's voice drops; his eyes water. A proper gravestone, he says, will help put his mind at ease. Howard Berkes, NPR News.
CORNISH: You can read detailed accounts of grain bin incidents in your state at NPR.org, where we also explored the death toll on family farms, which are largely exempt from OSHA regulation.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
CORNISH: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.