As the dim early light washed over the Appalachian countryside, Jason Kingsley began his climb up the side of an 80-foot silo. Kingsley was not a morning person. But he was also broke and unemployed. So when a dairy farmer named Ronald Wood called to ask him to help rescue a piece of machinery that had accidentally been buried under tons of hay and legumes, Kingsley said yes.
Not long before, Kingsley, 26, had been making good money in the Pennsylvania natural-gas fields that dot the Marcellus Shale. But the work dried up, and he was forced to move back to his father’s house in the little town of Mansfield, in the far north-central part of the state.
In the silo, Kingsley’s boots crunched on the mixture of wet hay and legumes used to feed Wood’s dairy cows. Wielding pitchforks, he and another worker, Eric Stone, tossed clumps of fodder to the bottom of a chute, where other workers removed the clumps and carted them away.
Soon they were engulfed in stifling heat rising from the decaying plant matter, and dust pricked their lungs. Neither man was equipped with a respirator. There was no emergency plan or alternative escape route should something go wrong. And something had. Stone was the first to realize he was having trouble breathing. When he peered down the chute they had climbed to the top of the huge cylinder of fodder, he couldn’t see any daylight. The chute that had carried fresh air to the men was plugged tight.