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.
* * *
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.
Will had since taken a job as a meat cutter at the local grocery store, Shaw’s. Each day, Will’s hands ached as he sliced slabs of corn-fed beef and chicken while surrounded by aisles and aisles of corn-based and corn-enhanced food: Morning Star frozen breakfast sausage, frozen chicken nuggets, Sara Lee white bread, Nabisco Oreos and Fig Newtons, Ritz crackers, Dr. Pepper, Wheat Puffs, Honey-Nut Cheerios, Log Cabin Syrup, Butterscotch Pudding Snacks, Campbell’s Chunky New England Clam Chowder, Welch’s Grape Jelly.
From the grocery store windows, Will could see the moon-colored corn bins across the street where two of his friends’ lives had ended. Months after the incident, the pyramid-shaped incisions that rescue workers had carved into the side of the bins to drain the kernels of corn were still visible to anyone who passed by.
I spent the next three years periodically interviewing Will, his parents, other victims’ families, rescue workers, and dozens of others in the town to write a story. I also attended the subsequent trial involving the grain companies and reviewed thousands of pages of court documents, transcripts, and depositions.
Much has been written about the workers who have died in such accidents, including one man in Missouri this month. But rarely do we hear from survivors, the ones who have to pick up and keep living. Will felt like Mount Carroll’s version of the Bubble Boy. He might as well have renamed himself Grain-Bin Boy. Will felt he should not have survived, and smoking weed helped numb him to his new reality. Six-packs of Busch Light helped block the memories. Will drank himself to sleep and ceased to dream. It was better that way. Other nights, he didn’t sleep at all.
Still, too often, the memories of that day shoved their way back into his mind.
* * *
It felt like an 80,000-pound semi-truck had parked on Will Piper’s chest. He could still breathe, just barely, but his body and neck were encased in corn, and the kernels kept falling.
For two hours, 20-year-old Will had been trapped in corn bin number nine, on a grain storage facility in Mount Carroll, Illinois. It was July 28, 2010, and Will had started his morning at work, cleaning the grain bin with two of his buddies, Wyatt Whitebread, 14, and Alex “Paco” Pacas, 19. Now both of his friends were submerged, and probably dead, though Will did not want to admit that yet.
Bin number nine was 118 feet in diameter and about as tall as eight grown men stacked one-by-one atop each other’s shoulders. It could hold around 500,000 bushels of corn, and today it was about half full. From close up, the kernels were crumbled from recent rains, greenish and moldy, like decaying teeth. Inside of the bin the kernels had fused together, caking up the sides like walls of honeycomb. The air smelled like rotten potatoes.
Grain bins had been as much a part of the backdrop of Will’s life in Mount Carroll as the stalks of corn that grew to twice his height before the harvest season. For miles upon miles, grain bins pockmarked the landscape, some as wide as sheds, others stadium-large. Some called them silos. On gray days, their stainless steel and aluminum alloy sides blended into the sky. On sunny days, the ribs of the bins gleamed like jewel facets. Every October, cornhusks were stripped, their kernels removed from each ear and sent to the bins for storage. Altogether, these cylinder towers protruding across the Illinois landscape stored nearly 2 billion bushels of shelled corn—a nation’s lifeblood within their giant silver bellies.
Anyone who lived or worked near the bins knew that these were not the kernels of steamed and roasted slathered cobs of sweet corn, which festivals celebrated. These would be processed into cattle feed, or ethanol, or corn syrup. Global demand for this corn had never been higher. But it tasted like dirt, and was so hard that if you took a bite, you could crack a molar.
The corn touched Will’s lips. Got stuck in his ears. He panted in pain.
* * *
In a pool or river drowning, a person inhales water, which floods the lungs and replaces air. The water permeates through the bloodstream, depriving the body of oxygen, seeping into the red blood cells, which break apart.
In a corn drowning, pressure from the kernels on the rib muscles and diaphragm can become so intense that they prevent any breath at all. Instead of drawing in air and releasing it by expanding the chest, everything gets compressed, forcing the rib muscles to exhale unnaturally, with no more ability to inhale. The air that is already in the lungs gets trapped, unable to get out. And more air can’t come in. This is called compressional or traumatic asphyxia.
The second deadly part of a corn drowning comes from suffocation—the kernels that block the mouth and nose. There is an overpowering urge and desperation to inhale, but it’s impossible. A terror-filled one to two minutes follows. That’s how long it takes to lose consciousness from lack of oxygen to the brain.
But there is still oxygen in the blood. The heart is still pumping. The blood might leave the capillaries and vessels and surge into the tissue, close to the surface of the skin, causing it to redden. The brain has about 15 seconds of reserve oxygen—15 seconds to revert to normal if full breathing begins again.
If there is no rescue, no clearing of the corn from the airways, it takes about five-and-a-half minutes for irreversible brain death to set in after loss of consciousness.
Beneath the corn, the skin dimples from the kernels like a golf ball. The body’s blood will begin to settle in the tissues in the lowest gravitational part of the body—the legs and feet if upright—creating a purplish hue—livor mortis.
Will prepared himself. He figured he had about 30 seconds left before he joined his two friends down under. Both had been trapped beneath the corn for what seemed like the slowest minutes.
Then Will heard a voice. “I’m coming down!”
* * *
Unable to move his head, Will looked toward the ladder. It was Tom Cravatta, a volunteer fireman who owned a lawnmower repair shop just a few yards away from the bins. Tom had grown up on a farm, sometimes playing in the bins when he was kid. They would climb in and out of the bins with ropes knotted around them. Tom had been at his shop when he got a call on his pager from emergency dispatch. He rushed over and raced up the bin’s ladder.
A volunteer emergency-medical technician with the ambulance, Brent Asay, was already on the top of the bin outside of the manhole when Tom arrived. Brent not been trained in grain bin rescues, and didn’t feel equipped or trained to go in.
Tom told Brent, “Throw this rope down to me. I’m going to tie myself off, and I’m going to go in.”
Tom barreled down the inner ladder. He wore a T-shirt and his firefighter pants with a couple of water bottles in his pocket. When his boots hit the corn, the pressure created a small avalanche. He held the rope, but didn’t have time to tie it around himself. Tom knew he might be on a suicide mission, but he took that risk anyway, and trusted that he could use the rope to pull himself up if the grain started falling too fast.
“Hey, my name’s Tom,” he said to Will. Tom was friends with Will’s dad, but didn’t recognize the boy. “What’s your name?”
Tom had to stave off the corn. Brett had given Tom a three-gallon white bucket, the bottom of it cut out. Tom slammed the bucket over Will’s head and shoulders, creating a thin wall around his face, protecting it from falling corn. He scooped kernels away from Will’s mouth, nose and ears.
Will could breathe a little now, but he told Tom his chest was killing him. Tom knew he needed to make a wall around Will to stop more grain from falling on him. Brett had a handheld walkie-talkie radio. Tom shouted up that he needed material for the partition. More rescue workers soon arrived with two-foot by four-foot pieces of plywood, lowering them into the manhole.
Tom shoved each piece of plywood into the corn around Will, like thrusting pieces of fencing into hard dirt. The three slabs formed the shape of a broken triangle. Brett threw down a second rope from above. Tom wanted to loop it around Will’s chest, but his chest was still submerged in corn. So Tom took both of Will’s hands and tied them together with a loose knot, like he was dangling in handcuffs. At least if someone turned the auger on again, Tom thought, Will might not sink so easily. Brett sent down an oxygen tank with a mask next. The mask seemed to calm Will and ease his breathing a bit more.
Twenty minutes passed.
“We need men down here!” Tom yelled.
“We’re waiting on people,” a voice replied.
The makeshift partition created a shield around Will’s face, but it wouldn’t last long. Still, no one else wanted to take the risk of entering the corn without training or safety gear, until another rescue worker finally joined Tom inside the bin. His entry joggled the corn and caused it to start flowing again, knocking over the partitions. Tom scrambled to put the plywood back in place in the 110-degree heat. He was drenched in sweat in his insulated pants.
Ten minutes later a rescue crew from Rockford arrived. The workers specialized in grain-bin rescues. They had brought special plastic partitions that locked together and were designed to wedge into the corn. The crew hammered the four-foot long plastic walls into the corn with rubber mallets, creating a cage around Will.
The grain shifted below the surface. Each movement seemed to set off more corn falling from top the edges of the funnel above. It rained on the workers, and Will told them: “You guys are gonna die in here with me if you don’t get the hell out of here.”
There must have been a dozen rescue workers around and above him, or outside. He couldn’t believe how many were digging their asses off for him.
Meanwhile, more rescue workers sawed a series of pyramid-shaped holes into the outside of the bin to drain more kernels. Trucks below loaded up with corn and hauled it off to dump nearby in a big pile.
Will felt his right leg begin twisting in the shifting corn. It felt like it was going to pop at the knee. His lower spine throbbed with pain because of the pressure. With large industrial vacuums with hoses, the workers began sucking the corn out from the cage. Every 20 minutes the workers would stop, pull the vacuum away, and use a pole to knock down walls of corn that had caked around the inside of the hose. Slowly, the pressure began to loosen.
Soon, the grain was down to Will’s bellybutton. Three workers tried pulling Will out by his arms. But his legs would not budge. He felt like they might rip his body in half.
“Stop,” Will said. “Stop.”
They resorted to vacuuming again, dumping the excess corn through the manhole. Slowly, they removed enough corn so that his buttocks and waist were exposed. Then they wrapped a rope around his body and told him to hold on to it with his hands and pull himself up as they pulled too. Again, Will’s legs would not budge. Six hours had passed since Will had become entrapped.
With the vacuum, they suctioned more, until finally the corn was at his knees. The workers took him by each arm again. They pulled. His legs came loose. They pulled harder. His feet came free. Will tried to walk, but his legs felt like ribbons. The workers flanked Will, carrying him under his arms and shoulders, sprinting atop the corn toward the edge of the bin, where they put him on a stretcher and slid him through one of the holes that had been carved into the side. Rescuers on the other side grabbed the stretcher and lowered him to the ground.
It was just after 4 p.m.
Will saw his mother, father, and younger brother, Allen, who had been a close friend and schoolmate of Wyatt’s. Will tried again to get off the stretcher to walk. But his legs still did not work.
Cravatta walked toward Will’s stretcher and gave him a thumbs-up sign.
As rescue workers cut his clothes off his body, Will looked at his little brother. He could read his expression, as if he was asking, “What’s up in there? Is Wyatt behind you or not?”
Will looked at him, and said, “I’m sorry. Wyatt died in there.” So did Alex. Paramedics put an oxygen mask over Will’s face. They loaded him into a helicopter, the quickest way to the hospital in Rockford. The copter rose, and banked.
“Look to your left,” one of the paramedics told Will.
Will raised his head and peered out the side window, looking down on his town. He could not believe it. At least 300 people surrounded grain bin number nine, spilling into the gas station, the car wash, and the Church of God. Fire trucks and semis lined the streets. Farmers from surrounding towns had come with their equipment, offering to help dig, drain, and cart away corn. School kids and parents and churches had set up stations, giving away sandwiches and sodas and water to the families and friends and police. Probably everyone that Will had ever known was down there, plus a whole bunch of people he’d never even heard of.
The copter soared higher into the sky, until the bodies and trucks and grain bins and trees became blurs.
Pale white lines sliced through patches of earth. They were crisscrossing roads, some of the same roads that led in and out of Mount Carroll. They ripped the landscape into pieces.
This was real, Will realized in that moment. This all happened. His friends were gone.
He opened his mouth and screamed.
Parts of this story were adapted from Drowned by Corn.
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