Firefighters Complete Complex Operation To Rescue Farm Workers Trapped in Grain Silo

Jamie Fulk reports on a rescue that took place when a farm worker became trapped in a grain silo.


On June 28, 2004, at 9:36 A.M., the Lisbon Fire Department and the Elizabethtown Fire Department in North Carolina were dispatched to a rural area in Bladen County, 17 miles southeast of Elizabethtown, for a farm worker trapped in a grain silo. Due to high humidity, low manpower and the complexity...


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On June 28, 2004, at 9:36 A.M., the Lisbon Fire Department and the Elizabethtown Fire Department in North Carolina were dispatched to a rural area in Bladen County, 17 miles southeast of Elizabethtown, for a farm worker trapped in a grain silo. Due to high humidity, low manpower and the complexity of the rescue, seven different agencies from Bladen and Columbus counties responded.

On the first alarm, Lisbon responded with Engine 592 and Medical Response Vehicle 599. Elizabethtown dispatched Ladder 552, a 75-foot ladder truck, and Crash Truck N222. When the initial call was dispatched, it was believed that only one victim was trapped. Upon arrival, however, Lisbon Fire Chief Kenneth climbed 20 feet and peered into a 19-by-19-inch opening in the silo and saw that the situation was far worse than initially thought: The initial victim was trapped up to his chest in grain and his brother was up to his waist, with his foot in the victim’s crotch, trying to hold him up from sinking. Clark immediately radioed incoming units that subjects were trapped in the silo.

Clark then called Chief Jamie Fulk of the Elizabethtown Fire Department via radio and started to devise a plan for a rescue. The Elizabethtown Fire Department had just been through extensive training in confined space rescue and it was believed that its members were up to the task. However, upon Fulk’s arrival, it was apparent this operation would be different from anything that the Lisbon and Elizabethtown fire departments had ever encountered.

After Elizabethtown Ladder 552 was set up at the back of the silo and hatch was removed, the full sense of urgency set in. One factor that had not been taken into consideration was that while the grain was being taken out by an auger, it had coned down in the center, so the victim’s head was nearly 15 feet down from the top of the outer edges of the grain. As another farm worker tried to help his co-workers, the grain continued to slide downward. This left no way for them to dig out the victim. The dust cloud that was being created by the workers inside the silo made the rescue even more difficult.

The victim, who could not speak English, showed signs of breathing difficulty and panic. Other farm workers were pleading with rescue personnel to pull the victim out. Immediately, the victim was tied off by a tow strap that was being used by the workers. The crew from Ladder 552 sent down a rescue line and tied the victim to the ladder. This line was then sent through a change-of-direction pulley to the ground, approximately 55 feet below them, to a mechanical advantage. A slight pull was made to try and free the victim, but as suspected the victim could not be freed by this method. Ladder 552 then tossed a Class I harness to rescuers inside in an effort to place more protection up under the victim’s arm. This simple toss of a light Class I harness caused an avalanche of grain to come rushing down, further trapping the victim and his brother.

Noting that a railroad track was only 50 feet away, the chiefs knew that railroad officials had to be notified immediately to stop any passing trains for fear that a vibration could create another avalanche and further bury the victims. At this point, it was decided that further assistance was needed.

Captain Bradley Kinlaw of Ladder 552, who is an employee of the International Paper Co., alerted Clark and Fulk that the company has an Emergency Rescue Team that had encountered a similar scenario a few months earlier in nearby Tabor City. Kinlaw felt the team’s expertise could be used in this situation, and he was given permission to call for help. At 10:15 A.M., International Paper teamed with Acme Delco Riegelwood Fire Department Station 1 in Columbus County, which is just down the street from the paper mill, to help with emergency transportation to the scene and manpower. At 10:17 additional manpower from Clarkton Fire Station 52 was dispatched to assist with the rescue effort.

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