Crews from three fire departments and a grain company’s safety team and others rescued a man trapped in a grain bin about 30 miles southeast of Pierre on Friday, March 6.
Pierre Fire Chief Ian Paul said the call came in about 4:05 p.m., Friday, that a man was trapped in a 20,000-bushel steel bin. It was dark before the man finally was extricated from the bin.
It was a dramatic illustration of how the wet year has made grain bin safety more important: when grain goes into a bin wetter than optimum, it tends to clump and crust. That means farmers often have to knock it loose. And as farm grain bins have gotten bigger, the danger is more acute when it’s 20,000 or 30,000 bushels, not 5,000.
This happened on a farm grain storage site about 30 miles southeast of Pierre on state Highway 34, then about four miles south, off Joe Creek Road, not far from the West Bend Recreation Area on the Missouri River’s Lake Sharp, Paul said.
It took the Pierre Fire Department’s Rescue Squad about 30 minutes to get there, Paul told the Capital Journal. The Pierre Rural Fire Department and the Harrold Fire Department also were dispatched.
They found the man buried up to his mid-torso in the bin, which was about three-quarters full of corn, according to Paul. The farmer, who was “older than 60,” is one of the owners of the operation. He was “in good spirits,” during the rescue operation, Paul said.
Another person on the site at the time had immediately called 911 when the man got trapped, Paul said. That person and others who live nearby had secured a rope around the man so he would not sink any further.
There was no possibility of pulling the man out of the grain, Paul said. “It’s just like, well, quicksand, I suppose you could compare it to. It certainly grabs hold of you and it seems the more you move, the more it wants to come in around you.”
The rescue workers first tried the “grain bin extrication tubing” they bring to such incidents. Assembled inside the bin, it’s a method of building a sort of steel shield or wall around the man to get the corn moved away from him so he can be removed.
But that wasn’t doing the trick despite long, hard efforts, Paul said.
Rescuers then turned to cutting tools to put about five holes into the bin toward the bottom, around the circumference, to empty the bin. It was important to release the grain in an even and controlled way, so the man’s situation didn’t worsen by too much grain movement, Paul said.
“We wanted to keep the victim as the high point in the bin,” he told the Capital Journal.
“We were able to bring the grain down to about waist level,” he said. They used a rescue saw and angle grinders to cut the holes in the bin, then at one point halted to let dust settle. Then they went with a reciprocating saw to do some cutting that didn’t throw as many sparks, Paul said.
Once the grain was low enough, a larger hole was cut in the bin so a “backboard,” known as a Stokes basket, a patented plastic rescue litter with sides, could be lifted into the bin. The man was strapped to that and taken out.
“He was conscious and in good spirits the whole time,” Paul said. “We had medical monitoring on him while we worked. There were paramedics on the scene.”
An AMR ambulance took him to Avera St. Mary’s Hospital in Pierre with non-life-threatening injuries, Paul said.
The Safety and Technical Rescue Association, or SATRA, from Agtegra Cooperative, which has large grain elevators and other agricultural supply facilities across central South Dakota, played a key role in the rescue, Paul said.
“Their expertise and assistance on site was extremely valuable in the rescue efforts,” Paul said.
SATRA team members responded quickly from the Highmore area and more kept trickling in from as far as northeast South Dakota during the rescue, which took nearly five hours, Paul said.
The crews spent about six hours, counting the response and return times, on the rescue, he said. He said about 25 first responders were on the scene and maybe 15 neighbors and family members.
The Hughes County Sheriff’s Office and the state Highway Patrol also assisted.
It was a professional rescue that had a great outcome, considering what could have happened.
Just last year, eight people died in Minnesota grain bins.
Already in 2020, across the nation, at least five people have died in grain bins. This includes Christopher Bauman, at his farm near Elkton, South Dakota, on Feb. 17. Bauman was emptying out a bin of corn and went in it and sank into the grain. His body was recovered some time later. He left behind his wife and their three children.
U.S. Sec. of Agriculture Sonny Perdue had proclaimed Feb. 16-22 as Grain Bin Safety Week and talked with Gov. Kristi Noem about it. According to numbers from Purdue University, 370 people have died in the past 10 years in grain bin accidents in the United States. The wet conditions the past two years in the Midwest have meant more danger as farmers need to get encrusted, wet grain moving inside of bins.
It’s an issue that cuts pretty close for Governor Noem: her father died in such a grain bin accident in 1994. “He did something that he told us kids to never do,” Noem said last month while talking to Perdue. “He climbed into the grain bin to break up some chunks of the crust, and that was the last time anybody in our family saw him.”
Agtegra, along with South Dakota State University and other groups, is sponsoring the 2020 Grain Engulfment Prevention Summit, April 15, at the Technical College in Mitchell. The 9 a.m.-3 p.m. seminar includes Agtegra’s SATRA teams giving a grain entrapment demonstration. To register, call (605) 651-2760.