A Pelican firefighter, head-neck-shoulders through the side opening, shows how confined the space was during the Sept. 10 rescue operation at the grain storage unit north of Erhard.

Pelican firefighters, with aid of Ripley vaccum gear, prevent potential tragedy at turkey feed operation 

By Louis Hoglund

After training numerous times over the past quarter century and never deploying the skills–Pelican Rapids firefighters got the call Sept. 10: Emergency grain bin rescue.

Buried up to his shoulders in a corn mixture, the victim was at high risk of further avalanche and possible suffocation.  

An emergency at a grain elevator operation is scary, for numerous reasons.

“The outcomes are typically not favorable,” said Pelican Firefighter Scott Richardson.  

“Nine times out of ten, it’s a recovery operation,” said Fire Chief Trevor Steeves. 

Though somewhat rare, “drownings” in a sea of grain do occur across the nation. And the incidents,  more often than not, are fatal–reinforcing the commonly held belief that farming and agri-business are among the most dangerous professions.  

“It was our first in 26 years,” said Chief Steeves.  “We’ve trained about four times for it. It’s one of those things, being in an agricultural area, it was inevitable that it was going to come up at some point in time.  Fortunately, it is something we have in our toolbox.”  

The accident occurred when Dale Velo tried to clean out some clogged passages, as the recent rains and humidity caused blockages. Part of the mounds of corn collapsed, and nearly buried him, said Steeves. 

“The victim was calm, conscious and alert the whole time,” noted Steeves.  The accident occurred at the GVT turkey feed plant, north of Erhard. 

Also aiding the victim  from a near-death scenario was also a first for Ripley’s Inc. The Erhard-based Ripley contracting firm has industrial vacuum machines, which cut through the soil and vacuum out the dirt and matter through a four inch hose.  

“We’ve never sent one of the units on a rescue mission…but we’ve always made it clear that, if there’s an emergency, we will do what we can to help,” said Dave Ripley, who added that the company usually has several of the machines in its inventory, for use in directional boring. 

 Ripley’s got the call from the Pelican Fire Department, and the shop crew hooked it up to a trailer and hauled it almost immediately. 

“I told the guys I was extremely proud of them for their actions,” said Ripley, noting that a three-man team from Ripley’s responded: Jeremy Ness, Evan Kubitz and Martin  Schroeder.  “We’re also really glad the fire department thought of us,” said Ripley. 

Firefighters initially stabilized the situation to prevent corn from pouring over the victim.  They hand-shoveled corn up and out, but it is a slow process said Steeves.  

“Without the equipment from Ripley’s, it would have made the effort a lot slower,” said Steeves.  

A state trooper, Otter Tail Deputy and Ringdahl Ambulance unit were on standby.  The Rothsay Volunteer Fire Department also sent some of its crew as back-up, along with equipment. Rothsay firefighters have experienced a grain extraction  in the past, noted Steeves.

“Everything went exactly how it should,” said Steeves, who added that the response time was within minutes–which also helped.  Emergency crews were on the scene about two hours. 

“We trained for it…and it paid off,” said Richardson. 

Though it may have been the first grain bin rescue situation for Pelican firefighters, there are some similarities to a typical fire call. 

“Instead of inhaling smoke, the guys are inhaling musty corn dust,” said Steeves.