Grain Bin Accident Survivor Shares Story, Safety Tips

By JENNIFER WHEELER, Rockford Register Star | March 3, 2014

The odds of living were against Roger Bates when he fell into a grain bin on Jan. 31.

The 78-year-old Rockton resident sank neck-deep into 35,000 bushels of corn while trying to break up spoiled clumps of material that would have clogged the machines. He had carried a chain connected to the bin’s structure inside with him, thinking he could pull himself out if he started to sink.

But that plan backfired when the corn engulfed him and he couldn’t fully lift his arms.

“When a squad car pulled in, I immediately thought he was a goner. ‘Cause I knew he only had seconds to react,” Roger’s wife, Judy, said Feb. 10.

Their grandson, Michael Bates Jr., sprang into action when he saw his grandfather sink in the corn. Michael quickly shut off the auger and carefully entered the bin to push away corn that was suffocating Roger’s chest. He called 911, prompting more than a dozen fire department and rescue agencies to respond.

Five hours later, Roger was freed.

And this is his takeaway: “There is no good reason (for going into the bin).”

“That’s just a plain no-no. I could have done the same thing without the auger running, it’s just a matter (of) I was saving time.”

He was one of the lucky ones.

About 74 percent of all documented grain bin entrapments from 1964 to 2005 resulted in death, according to a Purdue University study released in 2012. In 2011 that figure dropped significantly – to 30 percent of all entrapments resulting in death.

Farmers and agriculture companies across the Rock River Valley have experienced this danger.

Two teens, 19-year-old Alejandro Pacas and 14-year-old Wyatt Whitebread, were killed in July 2010 after becoming entrapped in corn more than 30 feet deep inside a grain bin at Haasbach LLC, a Consolidated Grain and Barge company grain elevator in Mount Carroll.

Another worker, Will Piper, and Pacas jumped into the grain bin to try to save Whitebread, who was quickly becoming buried by the material. Pacas jumped into what became a sinkhole and ultimately suffocated alongside Whitebread.

Rescuers saved Piper, who had been engulfed to his neck in the material.

A jury awarded the families of the two decreased teens $16 million, $8 million each, on Feb. 6. The jury awarded Pacas $875,000.

“I want my son back, and that’s impossible,” Whitebread’s father, Gary, said to the Register Star in a Feb. 6 interview. “I’m happy the jury of Carroll County realized my son was not disposable.”

But beyond financial penalties, these types of incidents have prompted advocacy groups and educators to continue promoting safe grain bin practices.

Bob Aherin, professor and agricultural safety program leader at the University of Illinois, said farmers should avoid entering a bin at all costs. They can reduce the likelihood of needing to go in by managing the grain’s moisture level, preventing debris getting into the structure and using cables when checking the material’s temperature.

If someone must enter a bin, farmers should check the oxygen level within the structure, use a harness and lifeline, turn off the auger, lock the controls so others can’t start the machines and ask someone to monitor in case of assistance.

Aherin said this advice often goes out the window, though, when workers are trying to speed up the process. Other times, farmers think they are invincible since they haven’t fallen in before.

“The flaw we have (is) that we value time sometimes too much,” he said. “We need to slow down and do it right.”

Fire agencies across the area often call out on the Mutual Aid Box Alarm System when they learn that someone has fallen into a bin. Rockton Fire Chief Kirk Wilson said the system is activated when an emergency requires many trained personnel and equipment.

He said each agency has different types of specialized equipment, like the best tools to help free people from grain bins, to make sure the region as a whole has access to many resources.

“There’s different disciplines that deal with this type of rescue or that type of rescue. Its hours and hours of not only of classroom time but practical time, as well,” he said.

To aid equipment efforts, Bates said he plans to donate metal panels to the Rockton Fire Department, which can help free people, like him, who fall into grain bins. The new panels will be sturdier than the plastic equipment some departments in the region use.

“We want to make it much easier and safer and better equipment for the next person to be rescued because there will be more,” Roger said.

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