By Katherine Klingseis. From USA Today. Originally posted: July 5, 2013. Original Article.
Arick Baker had accepted that he would die inside a grain bin.
When Baker became trapped last week in north-central Iowa, history was against his survival. From 1964 to 2005, 74% of reported grain entrapments resulted in fatalities, according to a report from Purdue University. In the most recent years studied, survival rates improved but only modestly.
“For 10 minutes, I just OK’d with myself that I was going to die,” Baker said. “My whole life I’ve been told that once you go down in a grain bin, you die.”
About 10 miles north, Iowa Falls Fire Chief Rick Gustin marshaled his resources. The only information he had was that someone was trapped in a grain bin. He also knew his only similar experience ended with the recovery of a body.
“Statistics say you will get a recovery, not rescue,” Gustin said this week.
But roughly five hours after being submerged in corn, Baker was pulled out alive and fell onto one of his rescuers.
“I collapsed on him and just started sobbing,” Baker said. “That was when I realized I was going to survive.”
Baker, a 23-year-old who lives in New Providence, Iowa, and farms in the area, went down June 26 into a 80,000-bushel grain bin in rural Hardin County to remove some rotten corn, unplugging a hole so corn could pass through.
Suddenly, an air pocket sucked him down farther, and he was engulfed in about 22,000 bushels of corn. A cleanup trip turned into a struggle to live.
“In less than 10 seconds, there was 18 inches to 2 feet of corn above me,” Baker said. “I had my left arm above my head, and I think you could only see an inch of my fingers.”
No one was around to help. Baker’s father and a truck driver already had left, and he had no idea when they would return. Baker was alone, struggling to breathe with 450 pounds of grain pushing against his chest.
“I just thought about my next breath,” Baker said. “It consumed all of my mind activity.”
Baker’s heart rate was also dangerously high. Doctors told Baker his heart was beating 173 times per minute, or 90% of his maximum, when they rescued him.
“Doctors told me if I were 10 years older, my heart would have exploded from how fast it was beating,” Baker said. “If I were 10 years younger, I would have been squeezed to death from the pressure.”
‘Holy cow,’ he says, ‘I’m still breathing’
Shock lasted about 5 minutes, Baker said, as he tried to grasp what had happened.
Farmers routinely face the risk of an accident, but entrapment reports are somewhat rare: The Purdue study found 20 to 30 reports nationwide each year, although researchers expected that more accidents went unreported.
After spending 10 more minutes accepting his imminent death, Baker turned more optimistic.
“Then, I was kind of expecting to be dead by this time,” Baker said. “But then I kind of realized, ‘Holy cow, I’m still breathing. I’m alive.’ ”
Baker credits his survival to the ventilation mask he was wearing. The mask doesn’t make oxygen, but it filters air dirty from dust and mold.
Baker said his parents bought him the $350 mask because he suffered from asthma as a child.
“It saved my life,” Baker said. “Without that helmet, I would have been dead in less than 3 minutes.”
Specialized training pays off for crew
It took about an hour before the truck driver returned and noticed Baker was missing.
“He pulled on the rope because I had a rope on, but I was so far under that I couldn’t do anything,” Baker said.
At 12:18 p.m., Iowa Falls emergency dispatchers received a call that someone was trapped in a bin near Owasa, Iowa, about 80 miles northwest of Des Moines, said Gustin, the fire chief.
In the 25 years Gustin has volunteered for the fire department, he had been involved with just one grain entrapment call before last week. It was three years ago, and the victim died.
Afterward, Iowa Falls firefighters went through specialized grain entrapment rescue training three times.
“We definitely have a need to keep people safe who are going into the grain bins,” Eslick said Jerry Eslick, who started Professional Rescue Innovations in 1998 to help train emergency rescue agencies for situations such as grain elevator entrapments. “If they do get into trouble situations, we need ways to get them out.”
One of the challenges with grain entrapment rescues is getting to the victims, he said. Even getting into a bin, let alone finding and removing a victim, can be difficult.
One hundred to 120 people responded for Baker’s rescue, Gustin said. Twenty-four came emergency agencies; some community members volunteered, too.
Roxane Warnell, emergency management coordinator for Hardin County, said she listened to emergency radio traffic on the rescue from her office, according to standard procedure.
“I was sitting on pins and needles,” Warnell said.
Protective tube placed around Baker
Firefighters found the bin holding Baker. He still had his rope on, so firefighters tested to see whether it was safe to enter.
Baker said he was drifting in and out of consciousness. He woke up after hearing a firefighter’s radio go off. He started yelling.
Gustin said hearing Baker’s voice was “definitely a boost for energy.”
“It makes you change gears. Everything gets upped a bit,” Gustin said. “Once we find out he’s alive, there’s nothing going to stop us.”
Firefighters were able to locate Baker’s hand, and then his head. But removing him was a far more complicated matter than just pulling.
“The problem with grain rescues is when they get in grain, it’s like water,” Gustin said.
As firefighters removed grain from around Baker, more grain took its place. Firefighters cut holes into the sides of the bin so grain would fall out.
Firefighters threw a “rescue tube” around Baker to prevent corn from falling around him.
The contraption creates “a cofferdam around the victim, which makes it so you don’t have to remove as much grain,” Eslick said. “It keeps the grain pressure away so you can dig them out.”
Responders dug for hours. The high in Mason City, an hour north, on June 26 was 88 degrees. Authorities said workers probably experienced peaks closer to 120 degrees.
Medical personnel were on the scene to check firefighters’ vital signs and offer medical assistance, Gustin said.
“We were trying to get firefighters to physically shut down and take a break,” Gustin said. “You have to make them take a break.”
Would he enter a bin again? Yes, he’s a farmer
After about three hours of digging, firefighters removed Baker.
He was taken immediately by helicopter to Covenant Medical Center in Waterloo, Iowa.
Baker spent two days in the hospital, he said. His only injuries were an injured foot, a few scratches and a rope burn.
One firefighter suffered from heat exhaustion and another had an injured shoulder from wedging himself in the rescue tube to keep it from collapsing.
Warnell, the county emergency manager, called the successful rescue “one in a million.”
“I’m proud of all the responders,” Warnell said. “These agencies are staffed with volunteers. They give up their time and put themselves in danger because they love their community.”
Baker said he was grateful for everything his rescuers did.
“They would have literally killed themselves to save me,” he said.
Baker said the whole thing still seems surreal: He said it feels as if he “read a really good book.”
And Baker said he would go back into a grain bin when he needs to.
“I’m going to be a farmer the rest of my life. I need to get used to going into grain bins,” he said.
“I will take a little extra safety precautions, but it still has to be done.”