☆ March 7, 2016
Back when I was in high school, a pal and I came up with a brilliant idea for an amusement park – a series of pools, but none filled with water. Instead, one would be filled with honey, another with ball bearings, another with super-saturated salt water, others with types of grain, etcetera. The point was to jump into the pools and… that’s it. Sensory amusement. Obviously impossible to implement due to sanitary reasons.
About a year ago, my ambulance director told us about a special training event, grain bin rescue, open to all Fire & EMS personnel in the region and taking place at the Coors plant. Grain storage warehouses and grain elevators are common around here, as barley (for beer) is one of the big crops in the area. I jumped at the opportunity to attend, even though it was just after my surgery and I still felt 90% non-functional. Not only was it an extremely unique training opportunity, it was one that would get me in the vicinity of a decades-old fantasy. I immediately volunteered to be a “victim” so I could half-bury myself in a mountain of grain.
Turns out pools of grain are extremely dangerous and can cause death and dismemberment.
Barley dust is nine times more flammable than coal dust. Our training was held in a gigantic warehouse (like, the size of a city block); a spark in that environment could cause an explosion that would rattle the building, which would kick up enough dust from the eaves and rafters to cause a second explosion that would level the warehouse. If someone is trapped knee-deep in barley, they have about 400 pounds of pressure on their feet. If they were to be pulled out with a harness from above, they would literally have their body pulled apart (dislocation occurs with about 150 pounds of pressure). In a grain silo, which is an enclosed space, oxygen can be replaced with carbon dioxide if some of the grain is molding. CO2 is heavier than oxygen and sinks to form a puddle in the lowest point. Depending on CO2 vs O2 levels, this situation can cause someone to fall unconscious or even die if they become trapped in the grain and can’t get to oxygen.
As a volunteer, I was asked to carefully climb up the mountain of grain and stand in a particular spot. There were trap doors all over the floor of the warehouse, and I was standing ankle deep in grain, about ten feet up the grain mountain, directly above one of these trap doors. A man with a walkie-talkie said “OK, open it up,” and I slowly began sinking down into the grain, drawn down as the trap door in the floor below me opened and the grain rushed through. The action created a sinkhole and I sunk. When I was buried to my waist, the walkie-talkie guy ordered the trap door to be closed, and there I was, stuck in a grain mountain. It was very, very cold in the grain. It was hard to even slightly wiggle my feet.
The grain is like a quicksand avalanche – you can’t be pulled out, nor can you dig yourself out without displacing grain from above, which slides down to fill the area you’ve dug and bury you further. To rescue someone who is trapped requires creating a chamber that is immune to the pressure of the surrounding grain. First, panels are placed above to block the fall of grain while rescuers work – you don’t want to go from one person trapped to three or four people trapped.
Then panels, which are slightly curved and slide together at the edges, are placed around the trapped individual. Rescuers use the ladder rungs to jam them deep into the grain, being careful to avoid the buried limbs of the patient. Then, a rescuer climbs into the steel compartment and digs out the patient, bucketful by bucketful. The full buckets are passed to helpers outside to be dumped. One of the panels has ladder rungs on the inside, so that both parties can climb out.
The view from inside…..