This year is expected to be the deadliest for corn drownings since 2010, when 31 people died in 59 grain-bin entrapments, according to Professor Bill Field, who for five decades has documented such accidents as part of Purdue University’s Agricultural Safety & Health Program. On average, children and young men under age 21 make up one in five grain-bin accident victims.
“There are some 45,000 items in the average American supermarket and more than a quarter of them now contain corn,” writes Michael Pollan in The Omnivore’s Dilemma. But as international dependence on the highly subsidized crop for cattle feed, corn syrup, and ethanol has surged—so have deaths by corn.
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Three years ago, I traveled to Mount Carroll, Illinois, a blip of a town home to 1,700, 20 miles east of the Mississippi River and Iowa border, surrounded by green, beige, and straw-colored land. Gutted red barns, spinning windmills, horses swatting flies, and billboards with slogans like "BEEF. IT’S WHAT’S FOR DINNER" lined the two-lane road into town. I had come here to find 21-year-old Will Piper.
I knew that Will had nearly drowned in corn a year earlier, in a grain bin accident that claimed two of his friends’ lives. The bin had three sump holes: the center, the intermediate, and the outer. When turned on, a conveyor belt below carried the kernels out the hole through an auger, creating a vacuum-like pressure in the bin, forming a cone as the kernels are sucked down. Once trapped in corn, the kernels lock you in like hardened cement. Workers are not supposed to be inside of a bin, especially without harnesses, when the sump holes are open or conveyor belts on. But these boys were following the grain facility manager’s orders when they went inside to break down clumps of corn. When one boy fell down a hole, Will and his best friend jumped into the funnel to try to save him.