Local firefighters who volunteered Saturday to be engulfed in a mound of loose corn at a Salem farm soon realized they could not free themselves.
“It’s amazing how little amount of grain around you can trap you,” said Dave Mutnansky, second assistant fire chief at Forbes Road Volunteer Fire Department.
During a rescue training exercise his department organized at Phil Long’s 400-acre farm near Crabtree, Mutnansky found he could barely wiggle his toes when the flowing, quicksand-like corn piled up past his ankles. He was unable to move his lower limbs when the corn reached his waist.
Fellow firefighters freed him using the department’s new rescue tools — four sections of aluminum that can be pushed down into the corn and joined to create a “tube,” or cofferdam, surrounding the victim of a grain-bin entrapment and a battery-powered auger drill that lifts confining grain away.
Forbes Road fire Chief Bob Rosatti was the driving force behind obtaining the uncommon tools and setting up the weekend training session attended by 55 local emergency responders.
“I’ve seen a lot of grain bins popping up locally in the last couple of years, so I did some research,” Rosatti said.
Though grain entrapments aren’t as prevalent in Pennsylvania as in the Midwest, he wants his department to be prepared to assist the local farming community if such a potentially fatal accident were to occur.
The department paid $4,000 for the rescue tube and $1,000 for the auger. The money came from a state firefighting grant and a $2,500 donation by the Monsanto Fund won for the department by Salem farmers George and James Kepple.
“The farming community has been good to us. We want to do something to give back,” Rosatti said.
Dave Hill, director of Penn State University’s Managing Farm Emergencies program, led Saturday’s training session, which used some of Long’s nine towering grain bins and a student-built trailer with a scaled-down bin capable of holding 300 bushels of corn.
Hill has seen interest grow over the past decade in better equipment and training for bin rescues in response to fatal grain entrapments in the Midwest.
In 2010, two teens in Illinois got trapped in a bin, he recalled.
“It took several hours to find the bodies,” Hill said. “That’s one of the cases that grabbed the attention of OSHA.”
A farmer was more fortunate in a 2003 Carbon County case, surviving after being partially submerged in corn for more than five hours.
In many cases, Hill said, farm workers enter a bin to break up corn that is too high in moisture and has clumped together, jamming the auger used to unload grain.
“Where the entrapments occur is when people go into structures with the unloading auger still running. The floor is moving out from under you while you’re walking across the surface,” he said. “A person can get totally submerged in 20 or 30 seconds.
“If a person goes under the surface of the grain, they’re able to protect their airway and they don’t spend a whole lot of time under the surface, they could conceivably be rescued.”
For those less lucky, suffocation is a common result.
In addition to Hill’s expertise, Rosatti said, area firefighters responding to a grain entrapment plan to draw upon the experience of local farmers, resources of the Westmoreland County Trench Rescue and Structural Collapse Team and ladder trucks from Latrobe and Greensburg fire departments that may be needed to reach the top of tall bins.
Jeff Himler is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-836-6622.
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