Bizarre Fantasy, Realized

☆ 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.

Grain silos

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.

Another volunteer, realizing a fantasy he didn’t know he had.

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…..



38 Responses to “Bizarre Fantasy, Realized”

  1. Alyxx
    March 7th, 2016 @ 9:04 am

    WOW! It’s like quicksand, only more granular. What do they do if the trapped person is injured and can’t climb the rungs?

    What a neat experience!!!

  2. janice atkinson
    March 7th, 2016 @ 9:05 am

    And I thought being a CERT member and volunteering for a school shooter drill was scary——You are a brave person .

  3. Heidi
    March 7th, 2016 @ 9:07 am


  4. Deborah Dutko
    March 7th, 2016 @ 9:12 am

    Whoa! What a post and thank you for explaining all of this! Pretty scary and terrifying!

  5. Tanya T
    March 7th, 2016 @ 9:20 am

    Wow!!! Sinking would be a terrifying experience. It takes a lot of trust in the people you are working with just to volunteer.

  6. shreve
    March 7th, 2016 @ 9:26 am

    A ~ another rescuer would squeeze in to help extricate if necessary! Lots of teamwork…..

  7. JoDi
    March 7th, 2016 @ 9:31 am

    Yikes! Sounds like the fantasy turned out to be a nightmare! I wonder how often someone gets trapped and has to be rescued.

    What an interesting experience! I had no idea a grain silo was so dangerous on so many levels!

  8. Marg
    March 7th, 2016 @ 9:34 am

    I always thought that would be a fun thing to do as well and was shocked when I found out how dangerous it is. Instead of buckets a super vacuum pipe would be quicker and more efficient, should be standard equipment in grain storage facilities. Wow, did you get scared at any time? I would panic I’m sure.

  9. Po
    March 7th, 2016 @ 9:37 am

    This is so interesting! I grew up in an area with large grain elevators, and can remember men dying when they fell in. I had no idea how a rescue works. Thanks for the post.

  10. Deborah
    March 7th, 2016 @ 9:50 am

    Fascinating. I lived briefly in Beatrice, NE, many years ago and worked for a company that built Butler grain silos. I never knew what happened once they were filled with grain. So very interesting. Thanks for volunteering & sharing.

  11. Vickie Zimmerman
    March 7th, 2016 @ 9:51 am

    Wow! I had no idea! Very interesting! Thank you for the lesson, I learned a lot! I knew the dust was flammable, but thought it would be easy to climb out. Thanks again.

  12. lisa
    March 7th, 2016 @ 9:52 am

    oh my goodness. i was having anxiety just reading your explanation. i was wondering if being submerged in the barley effected your gluten intolorance at all?

  13. shreve
    March 7th, 2016 @ 9:54 am

    M ~ no, that would create a risk for sparks and explosions.

  14. shreve
    March 7th, 2016 @ 9:56 am

    L ~ hard to tell, since I felt like crap anyway. It did make me very sneezy!

  15. Karen
    March 7th, 2016 @ 10:19 am

    Incredible! I know a little about the dangers of grain elevators since I lived in KS for a while… but what gave me the absolute shivers was the movie “Witness”. Thank you for the story and the explanations~ what a great opportunity for you and the other trainees.

  16. Karyn
    March 7th, 2016 @ 10:19 am

    Really really interesting! Something I’ve never thought about, but obviously very relevant where you live.

  17. Cynthia
    March 7th, 2016 @ 10:46 am

    Glad you got this training. A guy I grew up with died in grain silo.

  18. Steve
    March 7th, 2016 @ 10:51 am

    Aaaaaand that bizarre fantasy just confirmed that you’re one of those gals whose way different at home than she is at the office ;-D

  19. lisa
    March 7th, 2016 @ 11:40 am

    thank you for answering me, shreve! xo

  20. Marva
    March 7th, 2016 @ 11:57 am

    Made me feel slightly panicked! Thanks for improving your knowledge and skills to help others. Wow.

  21. wright1
    March 7th, 2016 @ 12:10 pm

    Appreciate the education about this. I’ve read of some of the dangers associated with grain storage, but to get a clear, first-hand account is far better.

    My family’s walnut processing plant caught fire and burned down, fortunately without any injuries or damage to any other buildings, about 20 years ago. Thanks for the reminder that farming is far more dangerous than most people realize.

  22. Sandy G.
    March 7th, 2016 @ 12:16 pm

    Yikes! Very claustrophobic to me. It was brave of you to volunteer to do that.

  23. Juli
    March 7th, 2016 @ 1:01 pm

    Wow! I had no idea that grain–and grain silos–could be that dangerous. Thanks for sharing!

  24. Barbara
    March 7th, 2016 @ 1:52 pm

    Is your old wish to be immersed in grain forever sated now?

  25. carol K
    March 7th, 2016 @ 3:15 pm

    You were very brave, but I think that is just your inherent nature. I get the shivers just thinking about it as I’ve heard of people dying that way.

  26. Sherri
    March 7th, 2016 @ 3:16 pm

    WOW I had NO idea………. thank you for sharing this – I am in awe of what you learn and would have never guessed any of the grain facts etc.
    Thank you again!

  27. Marie
    March 7th, 2016 @ 3:39 pm

    Just over 10 years ago, my cousin was trapped in a grain bin. In efforts to rescue him, they cut a hole in the side, but it was too little too late. He died.

  28. shreve
    March 7th, 2016 @ 4:24 pm

    C & M ~ I am so sorry to hear it….

    Many ~ I had no idea either!
    B ~ yes, it is.

  29. Ramona
    March 7th, 2016 @ 7:13 pm

    What keeps the rescuers from sinking down?

  30. shreve
    March 7th, 2016 @ 8:00 pm

    R ~ It’s definitely possible to walk in the grain – it’s awkward and difficult, but it can be done safely. And is often done safely by people who work in these environments. The rescuers in the pic are just in the grain to their ankles, when it’s above the knee you cannot move.

    A person usually becomes trapped when something ELSE happens – perhaps there’s an unexpected slide that traps them, perhaps they lose oxygen in the environment mentioned in the post and start to panic (not having enough O2 can present like being reallllly drunk), or another unrelated medical event occurs and they collapse and can’t get up again, or trying to get up actually causes them to become trapped. Some of these guys work ABOVE the grain in harnesses; if there’s an equipment failure, that can cause the person to fall and become trapped.

  31. rockrat
    March 7th, 2016 @ 8:34 pm

    It doesn’t take much. Two children died in Alberta last summer from playing “bury me” at the back-end chute door of a grain truck.

  32. GD
    March 8th, 2016 @ 5:29 am

    Lesson learned from this post: STAY OUT OF GRAIN SILOS!!!!

  33. Laurie
    March 8th, 2016 @ 7:19 am

    Interesting! Thanks for that education!

  34. Theresa Szpila
    March 8th, 2016 @ 10:01 am

    When I saw these photos, I shuddered. Some years ago, I saw film of someone being rescued from a grain silo and was horrified at how dangerous and risky it was. That young man was lucky in the way he fell – sprawled out rather than straight up/down – and he and his rescuers came out of it alive. I’m glad you survived, too! Scary. Very scary.

  35. mlaiuppa
    March 8th, 2016 @ 8:49 pm

    I started reading and immediately flashed back to the movie Witness. I can imagine the dangers the actors and crew faced as it looked like they were filming in a silo with actual corn.

    The fact you had a training indicates that these rescues happen with enough frequency that training is necessary.

    Farming is a much more dangerous career than people realize.

  36. WendyB
    March 9th, 2016 @ 9:02 am

    Facinating! I’ve wondered how they would do that.

  37. KristianR
    March 9th, 2016 @ 6:53 pm

    Here in the Twin Cities they have the Corn Pit at Sever’s Corn Maze. Essentially a pool of corn kernels about 2 feet deep, held in by hay bales.

  38. Patricia A. Long
    March 15th, 2016 @ 10:14 am

    Incredible! You are very brave!

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