Firefighters used special training at grain elevator
SIDNEY — The men trying to rescue a man Wednesday from an elevator filled with grain were up against two major challenges — very little room in which to work and blistering heat.
Firefighters specially trained in "confined-space" rescue were called to the Premier Cooperative elevator at 301 S. David St., by Sidney firefighters, who got there minutes after the initial call for help came at 11:20 a.m.
Interim Urbana Fire Chief Brian Nightlinger said the team of confined-space rescuers in this part of the state serves all of Champaign County and a bit of the bordering counties. Most of the team members are Urbana firefighters, but there are also a few from the Champaign and Danville fire departments.
On Wednesday, there were 12 Urbana firefighters, two Champaign firefighters, and four instructors from the University of Illinois' Fire Services Institute helping move grain.
The first team was able to get to the elevator with their trailer about noon. A second team arrived a little later, Nightlinger said.
"Obviously it's hot out, and when you're working inside a grain bin, it's even hotter so we have to do frequent work-rest cycles to keep the rescuers in shape," said Nightlinger. "We want to facilitate the rescue, but we want to keep our guys safe."
Urbana Fire Division Chief Chad Hensch was at the elevator for a portion of the recovery and said the men split up into groups of four and five and worked for about 30 minutes at a time.
He estimated the temperature inside the bin may have been as high as 120 degrees while the outside temperature hovered around 90. They were able to train a fan inside the bin to try to cycle in fresh air, but that did little to bring down the temperature.
The men wore face masks to try to keep from inhaling grain dust. They also have to put on a lot of heavy rescue equipment.
"There's a lot of rigging and ropes involved to stay on top of the piles. Once you get to the victim you have to be able to rig them to get them out on a harness and ropes and use mechanical advantage systems," Nightlinger said.
"Every piece of hardware and rope is designed to handle two people — the rescuer and the rescuee," Nightlinger said.
Hensch said it appeared that the employees were auguring grain out of the bin and that something caused the grain to stop flowing out.
He estimated there was about 4 feet of grain at the center, where they had tapered down, but there were about 20 feet tapering upward along the walls.
"It (the augur) stopped moving the beans, and he went out to unplug the center point," Hensch said, noting that the center point had a "crust" on it.
"With his weight, it collapsed and he went to the bottom and the 20 feet on the sides ... dislodged and came down on him," he said.
Nightlinger likened it to standing in a pile of marbles.
"Once you disturb it, it can move like an avalanche. If there are a couple of people in the bin, once somebody disappears, it's important to know about where they went under. That way you're not spending a lot of time looking in the wrong location.
"You get a false sense of security because the grain at the top has a hard crust, but the minute you break through that crust you're down to a part that's more fluid. It acts like a fluid. It's like being in quicksand. The more you move, the deeper you go," Nightlinger said.
Nightlinger said the firefighters do confined-space training at least twice a year. Grain-bin rescues are a type of that kind of rescue.
Mercifully, there isn't much call for confined-space rescue.
"I can remember having tunnel fires on campus about 12 years ago. We had to use confined-space procedures to fight the fires," he said.
Another example of a confined-space rescue would be a trench collapse or a building collapse.