Firefighters Complete Complex Operation To Rescue Farm Workers Trapped in 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.

Upon arrival of the International Paper Emergency Response Team (IPERT), headed by Jerry Gore, a size-up of the scene was given and IPERT advised command that this was nearly the same situation that had occurred in Tabor City. After a brief meeting at 11:13, the chiefs asked a local lumber company to deliver to the scene 60 four-by-eight-foot sheets of five-eighths-inch plywood, 25 eight-foot-long two-by-four inch pieces of lumber, two saws, two hammers, two saw horses and 50 pounds of nails. The goal was to build a box around the victims. Chief Jerry Hodges of the Tabor City Fire Department and Chief Bill Poe of the Whiteville City Fire Department had formulated such a plan at the Tabor City rescue and it worked.

The nearest lumber company was 18 miles away. While waiting for the lumber truck to arrive, grain vacuums were called to the scene from different parts of the county. The call for vacuums was made as a backup in case the original plan did not work. By this time, the victim was buried up to his chin in grain and his brother was covered up to his chest.

At 11:28, an interpreter was summoned to the scene to help with communication to the victims. It was believed that the initial victim had possibly fallen 30 feet. The interpreter arrived and immediately suited up with a Class III harness and entered the silo. Once he made contact with the trapped workers, there was an immediate change in the victim’s behavior and it was discovered that he had not fallen as far as was originally thought. This knowledge brought a sense of relief to everyone and would quicken the rescue, since cervical spine procedures would not be necessary.

At 11:39, Bladenboro Fire Station 51 was dispatched to assist Clarkton Fire Station 52 with lumber operations. The lumber and supplies arrived at 11:45 and work began on the box. As the box was being built, rescuers used small scoops to remove the grain on the outside of the box. Due to the window size, the plywood could be cut only 19 inches wide. After approximately 25 pieces were cut, the two-by-fours were also cut six feet long and trimmed to a point. They were handed in through the opening and driven down into the grain to create a box shape around the victims. The small pieces of plywood were then placed on the outside of the two-by-fours.

As grain began to be taken out of the box with small scoops, more plywood was added as the box went farther down around the trapped men. There was a suggestion to cut the bottoms from discarded 55-gallon drums and place them around the workers, but the idea was abandoned for fear that the victims could not tolerate the closeness of the barrel. This also would not allow enough room for rescuers to place a harness on the men.

At 12:30 P.M., the victim’s brother was freed and was able to climb down the ladder of the grain silo on his own power. After another half hour of digging, the victim was dug out to his knees. He was asked to kick his legs like a swimmer and with this, he was pulled from the grain at 1:07. The victim then exited under his own power and became emotional about the 3½-hour rescue, thanking his rescuers as he was being loaded into the ambulance.

Lessons learned at this incident:

  • Know where your resources are. At this incident, firefighters were assisted by specialized rescue teams and specialty farm equipment (i.e., grain vacuums and tractors), and they had quick access to interpreters. Use farm managers or owners to help locate equipment because they are the experts in this field; bring them into the command post.


Jamie Fulk, a 15-year veteran of the fire service, has been chief of the Elizabethtown, NC, Fire Department since 2002. He holds an associate’s degree in fire protection technology from Guilford Technical College and is a North Carolina State Certified Level II Instructor, Level III Fire Inspector, emergency medical technician and rescue technician. As chief, he led the department in 2003 in implementing and developing medical and rescue response procedures.

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