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Cargill donation helps Minn. firefighters save man trapped in grain bin

May 17, 2018

On April 12, the fire department in Faribault, Minnesota sent out an alert notifying firefighters of an emergency: A young man was trapped in a grain bin and being engulfed by the corn stored inside. When farmer and part-time firefighter Jeff LaCanne heard the page, he quickly realized it was at a neighboring farm, just a mile and a half up the road.

LaCanne sprang into action. When he arrived at the scene and rushed to the top of the storage bin, he looked in to find his 22-year-old neighbor chest-deep in corn. With every move the young man made, he would be sucked in deeper.

“The corn is essentially like quicksand,” explained fellow Faribault part-time firefighter and full-time farmer Pat DeGrood, who arrived soon after LaCanne. “When you create movement, the corn fills in space, covering you more and more and putting tremendous pressure on your body. It’s suffocating.”

The young farmer had been releasing the corn from the storage bin when a frozen chunk lodged in the shoot, blocking anything from getting through. The young man stood on the corn and, with a 15-foot pole, tried to push and break apart the frozen piece.

“When he hit it,” LaCanne added, “the corn started flowing downward and he just got sucked in. He’s extremely lucky his brother got there to shut off the outflow of corn before he was submerged. Another minute or so and he would’ve been completely engulfed.”

Both LaCanne and DeGrood sell their crops to Cargill, like many other farmers in the area. That relationship with the company helped pave the way for a $10,000 Cargill donation several years ago to provide training and safety equipment for the fire department. This would prove instrumental in the rescue.

Rescued just in time

When he first got to the victim, LaCanne verified that his breathing was stable. “That was key,” LaCanne noted, since engulfment can generate enough pressure on the victim’s chest to cause fatal asphyxiation even if the victim’s head isn’t submerged. The young farmer was cold and submerged chest-deep in frozen corn. It was urgent that firefighters execute the rescue as quickly as possible while still keeping everyone else safe.

Firefighters, donning helmets and safety harnesses purchased with the Cargill donation, got to work. Rescue in this situation isn’t as simple as strapping a harness around a victim and using a winch to lift them free. The only safe way to free a person being engulfed by grain is to use a rescue tube.

The rescue tube is a four-piece tube, explained DeGrood. You clamp it around the victim and work it down into the corn. Then you use a small auger to remove the corn from inside the tube. As you’re moving the corn out, it slowly releases pressure around the victim and frees them.

Soon, as a result of their coordinated efforts, the young man was lifted out. “He was shaken up and very cold,” according to DeGrood, “but he was otherwise okay.” 

Seeing the rescue executed successfully was a source of profound relief for everyone on the scene. “It’s a feeling you can’t really describe,” said LaCanne. “We’re a tight-knit community."

DeGrood agreed: “It was a pretty proud moment, especially being an individual who’s done this training for years with our department. Everything worked out just like we practiced it time and again. We were prepared and equipped to ensure the safety of everyone.”

Faribault firefighters Members of the Faribault Fire Department with the rescue tube and harness equipment used during a bin rescue event. Sharing knowledge across a community

In addition to providing safety training and equipment for first responders, Cargill’s donation enabled the Faribault Fire Department to put together a safety trailer that allows firefighters to do safety demonstrations regarding on-farm risks at community events. Kids are often the primary audience.

This kind of contribution is consistent with Cargill’s philosophy about sharing best practices across Cargill and externally, said Mike Damasin, assistant vice president of Environment, Health & Safety at Cargill. “Our focus is on safety, not just for everyone in Cargill, but also throughout our supply chains and the industry as a whole.”

For the Faribault Fire Department, this kind of partnership enables firefighters to access tools and knowledge they otherwise couldn’t.

“There are two key elements to any rescue: trained individuals and the right equipment,” said Dustin Dienst, chief of the department. “This equipment is specialized and expensive, and so a partnership with Cargill is great because it helps us get the right equipment and train our firefighters on it.”