Tube helps rescuers free ‘victim’ from mound of corn
Members of the Bradenville Volunteer Fire Department came to the rescue this week when 15-year-old James Winklosky found himself sunk up to his waist in a bin of corn kernels.
The rising sophomore and FFA treasurer at Derry Area High School volunteered for the role of “victim” in a mock grain bin rescue staged at the Derry Township Agricultural Fair.
With a harness and rope to keep him from sinking too far into the quicksand-like grain, the Derry Township teen wasn’t in any true danger. But the pressure he was under was real enough.
“I survived,” Winklosky said, but added, “It was really tight. I didn’t realize how much pressure was on my legs until they started moving the corn. It was really tiring just sitting in there.”
It requires a force equal to twice a person’s body weight to pull them free if they are entrapped to their waist in grain, according to Stephen Brown, a Penn State ag rescue educator who helped present the rescue demonstration in partnership with the Westmoreland County Farm Bureau.
“It’s important for us to remove the grain from the person that’s entrapped rather than trying to remove the person from the grain,” Brown said. “If you have a rope tossed around your armpits, 300 or 400 pounds of force is not going to feel very good. You can actually hurt somebody very badly by trying to do that.”
Brown and Penn State grad student Mike Dyer of Berwick, who is researching grain bin safety measures, guided local first responders as they practiced using a “rescue tube” to free Winklosky and other volunteers from the bin mockup.
Brown explained that a set of curved metal panels are fitted together and pushed down into the corn, forming a tube that encircles the trapped person. Then an auger, powered by a cordless drill, is used to draw the grain from the tube until the person can be freed.
Rescuers can place cut-up sections of plastic crates on top of the corn to provide a surface they can stand on without being sucked into the grain themselves, Brown said.
“If someone falls into a grain bin, time is of the essence to rescue the person before they suffocate,” said Mark O’Neill, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau.
According to researchers at Purdue University, more than 900 cases of grain engulfment have been reported across the nation — with a fatality rate of 62% — in the past 50 years. The worst year was 2014, when 38 documented grain entrapments resulted in 18 deaths.
Fred Slezak, a Westmoreland County Farm Bureau board member and owner of Lone Maple Farms in Salem, pointed out inhaling dust associated with stored corn is another hazard. “It can cause respiratory issues,” he said.
Officials would like more fire departments in rural farming areas to be equipped with the rescue tubes, but Brown noted they can cost up to $3,500.
Forbes Road is the only fire department in Westmoreland County known to have one of the devices, according to Kayla Wallace, county farm bureau secretary.
Through its Nominate Your Fire Department Contest, Nationwide Insurance has provided rescue tubes and accompanying training to 111 fire departments in 26 states since 2014.
“Last year, there was a case in which a Somerset County farmer was successfully rescued from a grain bin by a fire company that had received grain bin training and rescue tubes through the program,” O’Neill said.
Preventing an entrapment is the best option of all. Dyer is looking into ways to retrofit older grain bins to provide anchor points for a rope and harness that agricultural workers can use when they enter the structure.
Jeff Himler is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jeff at 724-836-6622, [email protected] or via Twitter .