Two Reax Training Centre instructors reflect on a rope rescue team call out from some years ago. Names are withheld to protect the privacy of those involved.
“Just send my lads in you *$%£”ing idiots, they’ll dig me out, they know what to do.”
Clearly this casualty didn’t fully understand his predicament. Usually his hired workers would dig him out. On this occasion they’d tried digging, realised that this was worse than normal, and made the 999 call. This was the fifth time this particular farmer had been buried…
This had now gone beyond a simple extraction. Especially as the casualty was in a particularly “abrasive” mood!
Upon first arriving at the scene we were told that a paramedic was with the casualty. Looking in to the top of the silo we could only see a paramedic. Where was the farmer? The paramedic looked up to us and then lifted an oxygen mask from the surface of the grain. The farmers face peered back at us from underneath, most of his hair and all of his neck covered by grain. Just enough exposed face to breath.
We sent one firefighter down to the him. Hanging in a harness, suspended from the ALP (Aerial Ladder Platform) on top of a farm silo. Dangling above a farmer nearly engulfed by grain, fighting to keep his mouth and nose clear of the grain that threatened to choke his airway. This had now gone beyond a simple extraction. Especially as the casualty was in a particularly “abrasive” mood!
The grain silo was used to supply chicken feed via an auger system to adjacent barns. Every now and then the farmer would notice that the chickens were not being fed, would climb up into the silo, walk on the grain and agitate the feed to clear any blockages. This would have been fine if it wasn’t for the fact that “bridges” would form at the top of the silo where grain underneath had flowed away. From above the grain appeared to be a solid surface. In fact there would be cavities underneath, covered by just a thin bridge of grain.
It was impossible to detect these cavities. And the only way that anyone on the farm knew that someone had fallen in was after they hadn’t been seen on the farm for an hour or two…
…any movement on the top of the grain as the first firefighter was lifted up meant that grain flowed back around the casualty…
The weight of the grain surrounding him meant that it was impossible to just pull him straight out. As he slipped further down it became clear that any contact with the surface of the grain- a firefighter’s boot, a well-meaning hand digging- could lead to the casualty being completely immersed. In fact, care needed to be taken while ascending the external ladder on the silo as even the impact of a torch swinging against the metal skin of the silo would cause the grain to shift, dragging the casualty further down.
Hanging on a mainline and back up line, controlled by a pulley system set up outside, one of our team would be lowered down with full breathing apparatus (BA) on due to the levels of dust in the silo. They would dig away at the grain until their air supply ran too low. They would then be lifted up and another fire fighter would replace them. Unfortunately, any movement on the top of the grain as the first firefighter was lifted up meant that grain flowed back around the casualty. As a result, it was decided that the same firefighter would stay in the silo and a replacement BA set would be lowered down to them, limiting disturbance. In addition sections of corrugated sheet were placed to stop the grain flowing onto the casualty. This created a cavity around the casualty and meant that eventually we could get a strop under his arms.
In the meantime, as we dug the casualty got increasingly agitated. Each angry movement by him meant that more grain would pour in on top of him. This guy really didn’t understand how bad this was getting!
At first it was thought that we’d be able to drag him straight up and out. It soon became clear that he wasn’t going anywhere as the weight of the grain surrounding him squeezed in on him and meant that any additional effort on the haul line could lead to significant injuries. It was decided instead that a hatch at the bottom of the silo would be opened, allowing the silo to empty from the bottom.
Having opened the hatch and dug out some highly compacted grain from the bottom of the silo we eventually created enough space around the casualty that he could be lifted up vertically and clear of the silo. He was fine despite his ordeal. He walked away from what could have easily been a fatal accident.
All in this rescue took more than 8 hours. We worked into the evening, finishing in the dark. We had trained for this kind of situation but the reality is that rescue training can only accommodate so many variables. In this case the primary variable was a very angry farmer, unhappy at the amount of time it was taking to extract him. At one point we had even got an off-duty firefighter who knew him to sit down next to him to calm him down. While this increased the number of people sitting on the unstable grain surface its benefits outweighed the disadvantages. Without keeping the casualty calm we would have struggled to dig him out successfully.
This was a challenging rescue, not in terms of the technical nature of the rescue but primarily in terms of the environment we were working in and the emotional state of the casualty. It highlights the importance of safety in grain silos and the need for an effective rescue procedure.