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Company plans to appeal verdict awarding $8 million each to families of 2 teen workers who died in accident
MOUNT CARROLL, Ill. — — Carla Whitebread avoids driving by the grain bin where her son Wyatt died.
And when she comes to this tiny northwest Illinois town, Annette Pacas tries to do the same. She hates looking at the giant metal structure where her eldest, Alejandro, was killed.
Almost four years ago, on a sweltering day in July, their young sons, along with two co-workers, were working at a grain facility and told to go into one of the bins to break up corn clumps.
But Wyatt and Alejandro, 14 and 19, respectively, slid into a funnel of grain, sank toward the bottom and suffocated in the corn. When the two were dug out several hours later, authorities found compression marks on their blistered bodies.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration discovered that the company that hired the two never trained them, didn’t provide safety harnesses and failed to develop an emergency action plan for accidents, among other infractions.
On Thursday, a jury decided another company, Consolidated Grain and Barge Co., which rented the grain bin facility at that time, was also responsible for the deaths, awarding each family $8 million. Will Piper, who was also engulfed in corn but survived, was given $875,000.
A spokesman for the grain company said it plans to appeal.
The trial has come to an end, but the families say their work is far from over. They hope the settlement grabs attention so this doesn’t happen again and shows companies that safety is everyone’s responsibility.
“The thing is, this did not have to happen. There was no excuse for it,” Annette Pacas said Friday. “It sends a message not only to the big guys, but to the local farmers. ‘Don’t do this.’ It was totally preventable.”
On July 28, 2010, the four young workers were told by their manager to go inside a grain bin to break up the moldy corn.
Alejandro had been on the job for less than a day. Wyatt had started a few days earlier. Neither had any farming background.
Wyatt Whitebread was an athletic, energetic teen who always wore a big smile. The kind of kid who was everyone’s friend, his mother said, because he was so compassionate.
Working at the grain facility was his first job. “And he was proud to have it. … He was just proud to make money on his own,” Carla Whitebread said.
The oldest of seven, Alejandro Pacas, nicknamed “Paco,” was deeply religious and loved music. Before his death, all he could talk about was returning to college to study electronic engineering, his mother said. He wanted to create prostheses for those without limbs.
At work that day, around 9 a.m., the manager opened two additional holes in the floor of a 500,000-bushel grain bin to accelerate the flow of corn.
Inside the bin, Wyatt fell face first into the grain. His co-workers called out to him. He eventually opened his eyes and started screaming.
Alejandro and Will dived into the kernels. Each man grabbed an arm and tried to pull up Wyatt. A fourth co-worker scrambled out of the bin and ran for help.
When the manager arrived, he turned on an outer sump and a conveyor belt but didn’t turn off the intermediate sump.
That created a sinkhole that swallowed the boys, one by one. Soon after, Will felt Alejandro’s hand go limp and stood face to face with his friend’s body for six hours while rescuers worked to shovel them out, Annette Pacas said.
Later, the families discovered that safety precautions were ignored and safety equipment was stored nearby but not used.
In the weeks that followed, everyday things became harder for the families. Carla Whitebread, a Spanish teacher who taught at the high school Wyatt attended, found it hard to walk out of her classroom and not see her son by his locker.
Annette Pacas said she could barely lift herself out of bed. Her family moved out of the state, partly because of Alejandro’s death. “Now there’s just that ache and that hole that’s never filled,” she said.
The two families and Piper initially filed a lawsuit against Haasbach LLC, the company that hired the boys but never trained them, the families’ attorneys said. Separately, OSHA fined the company $200,000, and it later closed its doors.
Last summer, Haasbach was dismissed from the lawsuit after reaching a settlement. The families and Piper were each awarded $2 million, said Kevin Durkin, an attorney representing the families.
Over the last 21/2 weeks, the families gathered in a small, wood-paneled courtroom here as lawyers rehashed the details of that day. Relatives, friends and strangers clutching tissues sat in the benches and listened, sometimes sobbing.
After the jury debated for eight hours, it found that Consolidated Grain and Barge played a role in the deaths and injuries.
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