The sea of shifting soybean kernels had risen to Jay Butterfield’s knees inside a tall grain bin on his Ohio farm.
“I knew I was in trouble then,” the 70-year-old said. “Because it’s just like being in quicksand or cement.”
Sometimes a job becomes so routine and familiar that carelessness creeps in. That’s the way it happened on Butterfield’s 116-acre farm north of Cincinnati.
Soybeans that came out of the field last November were damp, didn’t dry well and weren’t flowing smoothly out of an opening in the bottom of the 30-foot-tall, corrugated steel bin. Just before 4 p.m. on May 30, Butterfield scaled the ladder on the outside and climbed down into the shadowy bin with a length of plastic pipe to break up the damp clumps. He wore no harness or safety equipment. He had done the same thing without incident the previous day and on other days.
“You think it’s not going to happen to you,” said the second-generation farmer.
Butterfield climbed down and stood on top of the hard legumes, poking and breaking them up to better facilitate the flow. He was near the bottom of the bin when he got stuck. Then the crop that was piled up around the sides started to shift.
“The beans went out from under my feet and sucked them down that fast,” he said. “Then they started rolling on top of me.”
Butterfield had multiple problems. He was close enough to the bin’s bottom to put his foot on the rotating auger, which helps sweep out the beans and threatened to suck him down into it. The machinery stripped the leather off one of his steel-toed boots and ripped the lace out.
He hollered to his brother-in-law Eddie Demaree for help. By the time the first rescue squad arrived, Butterfield was buried up to his chest with his arms in the air.
Within about 10 minutes, he was covered up to his chin.
Despite the warnings, a couple dozen people, give or take, die from being buried in grain every year in the U.S. Butterfield’s friend Charlie Groh died in a corn bin in 2013 in a neighboring township. Butterfield readily acknowledges he should have known better.
Such accidents are so common that “grain entrapment” has a lengthy Wikipedia page. A study from Purdue University noted that 2010 was a particularly hazardous year for grain bin accidents, with 59 entrapments and 26 deaths. Last year, 30 grain entrapments were documented, with half the victims dying. Boys under 18 are especially susceptible.
It happens so often, in fact, that fire departments in farming regions undergo special training and acquire equipment just for these situations. One such crew, all members of the Reily Township volunteer fire department, was near Butterfield’s farm.
“We got them on the road immediately,” said Steve Miller, the Ross Township fire chief who headed the overall rescue effort.
Before long there were no fewer than 52 rescue personnel from a dozen agencies on the scene.
Ross Township firefighter-paramedic Ron Stenger is a technical rescue specialist trained in helping get people out of enclosed spaces. He was the first one in. A rope was dropped and tied around Butterfield’s arms. He was given oxygen. Rescuers sprinkled water inside to keep the dust down and lessen the risk of combustion.
Butterfield started wondering about the squad having to pull him out by his arms and how painful that might be. His chest was being squeezed, and he was breathing the dust generated by the crop.
Loved ones were trying to keep his wife, Genevra, who has had some health problems, up at the house, so she would stay calm. But she saw the hubbub and came down anyway. The yard filled with others who arrived to watch.
Reily Township brought the key materials for rescue: panels to create a tube inside the bin. Rescuers lowered the panels inside and assembled the tube around Butterfield to keep him from being squeezed any more or buried by the beans.
Once that was put together, getting the still-wet soybeans out was slow going. A rescue auger kept clogging. A vacuum truck, which arrived with a police escort, came to suck them out. Two holes were cut in the side of the bin and people grabbed shovels and went to work.
“I knew as soon as I got that wall around me that I had a chance,” Butterfield said. “For two hours I thought I was a dead man.”
At about 7 p.m., three hours after the effort began, Butterfield was brought out through one of the holes in the side. He was helicoptered to a Cincinnati hospital as a precaution but was released the next day without any serious complaints.
That evening, some of his farmer friends worked until midnight shoveling his soybeans into a truck to get them to market.
“I’m a very lucky man,” he said.