The three young workers sank into a funnel of corn that pulled them down like quicksand toward the bottom of the giant grain bin.
Wyatt Whitebread, 14, started screaming as the kernels moved past his chest, up his chin and over his head within a matter of seconds.
“We’re going to die,” moaned Alejandro “Alex” Pacas, 19, who had jumped into the sinkhole to try to pull Whitebread out.
“Hold on,” responded Will Piper, 20, who had rushed to the boy’s aid on the other side. “Help is coming soon.”
But rescue came too late for Pacas and Whitebread, who perished that sweltering day in July in Mount Carroll, Ill., inspiring renewed concern by regulators over grain bin accidents — a little-known, perilous workplace hazard in farm country, including some parts of collar counties surrounding Chicago.
Last year, 51 men and boys were engulfed by grains stored in towering metal structures that dot rural landscapes, and 26 died — the highest number on record, according to a report issued last month by Purdue University. Illinois led the nation with 10 accidents and five deaths.
Altogether, 31 people are known to have died in grain elevator accidents in Illinois over the last 25 years. This is almost surely an undercount, since there is no central repository of information about grain elevator accidents.
In less than 10 seconds, a man who steps into flowing corn can sink up to his chest, becoming immobilized, said Robert Aherin, agriculture safety leader in the department of agricultural engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Within another 10 seconds, he’ll be completely submerged and unable to breathe, essentially drowned in corn.
Accidents can occur when someone enters a bin to break up clumps that form when grains are moist and have started decomposing. The 2009 corn crop was a particularly wet one, leading to more stuck-together grain than usual. In turn, that caused more workers to go into grain bins in 2010 as the crop was removed, exposing them to potential danger, said Jeffrey Adkisson, executive vice president of the Illinois Grain and Feed Association.
With proper precautions, virtually all accidents are preventable, but sometimes time-pressed managers or workers ignore safeguards.
If machinery is on, helping to keep corn flowing, a sinkhole can form and pull down a worker who gets too close. Or corn caked on the sides of a bin can collapse like an avalanche, burying someone. Or someone may walk across the top of the corn, thinking it’s safe, and plunge under the surface.
Recommended precautions are outlined in grain-handling standards issued by the Occupational Health and Safety Administration. Every time someone goes into a grain bin, machinery that helps move grain should be turned off. The person should wear a body harness so he can be pulled to safety. An observer should stand outside the bin ready to help if needed.
But sometimes grain elevator operators become complacent. They “know what to do — they just don’t do it because nothing has ever happened to them over the years and they don’t think anything is going to happen,” said Kathy Webb, director of OSHA‘s Region 5 office in North Aurora.
OSHA has stepped up inspections of grain elevators in Illinois and other states after the accident in Mount Carroll, located in the far northwest corner of Illinois. A number of facilities are just outside Chicago, including 12 in Grundy County, 10 in McHenry County, seven in Will County and six in Kane County.
Also, large numbers of farmers now have grain bins on their properties and assume that safety standards don’t apply to them. By law, OSHA is prohibited from spending any funds to regulate the activities of farmers with 10 or fewer employees. But even farms that fall into this category “should be following the standards because they save lives,” said Scott Allen, an OSHA spokesman.
At the Mount Carroll grain elevator where the two teens died last summer, crucial safety measures were ignored, according to an OSHA investigation released in late January that cited the facility’s owner, Haasbach LLC, for 24 violations and proposed a $555,000 fine. Haasbach, of Warren, Ill., is owned by members of three large farming families.
The outfit didn’t train the young workers, provide safety harnesses, make sure machinery was turned off, guarantee an observer was present or develop an emergency action plan in case of accidents, among other forms of negligence, OSHA alleges.
“None of these boys had any farming background whatsoever,” Webb said. “None of them had any idea of the dangers.”
Haasbach lawyer John Doak said his client is challenging OSHA’s jurisdiction because it is a farmer-owned grain storage facility that has fewer than 10 employees.
In a separate investigation, the U.S. Labor Department found that Haasbach violated child labor laws by hiring youngsters under 18 years of age to perform hazardous jobs prohibited for children under the Fair Labor Standards Act. Haasbach attorney Timothy Zollinger contests that, noting that Illinois child labor laws exempt minors engaged in agricultural pursuits.
At first, Will Piper thought he’d be cleaning the bottom floor of bins with a broom when he took the job at Haasbach’s 2-million-bushel facility in Mount Carroll. But from the start, he said, he and Wyatt Whitebread waded into the corn trying to break up clumps with shovels.
The only training Piper remembers getting was from Whitebread, a fun-loving, sociable, straight-A student who had started on the job two weeks before. “It was pretty loosey-goosey,” he said.
“To find a 14-year-old walking down corn in a grain bin would be like finding an 8-year-old driving an SUV down Michigan Avenue,” said Bill Field, a professor of agricultural engineering at Purdue. “It’s just bizarre.”
The day before the accident, two other teens joined the crew: Chris Lawton, 15, and Alex Pacas. Pacas was Piper’s best friend, the oldest of seven siblings, the kind of person who “thought of everyone but himself,” Piper said.
Sometime after 9 a.m. July 28, Piper said, a Haasbach manager decided to open two additional holes in the floor of a 500,000-bushel grain bin to accelerate the flow of corn; only one hole had been open previously. (Think of a round bathtub with three drains, all open.) At the time, the bin was about one-third full, Piper recalled.
He and Pacas were working on one side of the bin with a shovel and pickax while Whitebread and Lawton were on the other side. With machinery running to help pull out the corn, “we were attacking different clumps, wading in corn all over the place,” Piper said. At some point the four climbed a ladder to the top of the bin to get some fresh air and came back down.
What happened next isn’t entirely clear to Piper. Suddenly, he saw Whitebread riding a pile of moving corn nearby in a sitting position, something the young workers did occasionally to help the grain flow. By the time he stood up, Whitebread was knee-deep in the sinkhole. Right away, Piper said, he and Pacas rushed to either side and tried to pull the boy out.
Then, all three started sinking together while Lawton climbed a ladder inside the bin to go get help. Whitebread was the first to go under, Piper said.
The facility’s manager, Piper said, turned off the grain-moving machines, but the corn was still unstable and began to swallow up Pacas and Piper, who had an advantage over his friend because he was taller.
“He prayed for us to get out alive, he prayed for his family, for his siblings, then he said, ‘All I ever wanted to do was watch my brothers graduate high school,'” Piper remembered, describing Pacas’ last moments.
Then, reciting the Lord’s Prayer, Pacas asked Piper to hold his hand as corn climbed above his head.
It took more than 300 rescuers from the surrounding area another six hours to remove Piper from the grain bin while draining the structure of corn.
Whitebread’s family has filed a lawsuit against Haasbach in Carroll County Circuit Court, seeking damages for his death. Zollinger, a Haasbach lawyer, says Whitebread, even though he was 14, was “lawfully employed” and thus covered by workers’ compensation. Under Illinois’ workers’ compensation act, employees covered by workers’ comp cannot sue their employers. If an unmarried person with no dependents dies on the job, workers’ comp pays no more than $8,000 — for burial expenses.
Kevin Durkin, a lawyer for the Whitebread family, said Wyatt was working for Haasbach illegally, echoing the Labor Department’s child labor finding.
“My heart is broken,” said Carla Whitebread, Wyatt’s mother, in a statement. “We will never get over what happened.”
Pacas’ outraged aunt, Catherine Rylatt, has convinced regulators, farmers, grain elevator operators and safety experts in Illinois to join the newly formed Grain Handling Safety Coalition, dedicated to providing education and training that can help prevent accidents. Several sessions in the state are scheduled next month. The coalition is starting its work in Illinois and plans to expand nationally over the next several years.
“I don’t want any mom, any dad, any sibling to go through what our family has had to go through,” said Annette Pacas, the young man’s grieving mother. “Everything that could have been done to stop my son from dying wasn’t done. How many people have to die before these problems are taken care of?”