Farm accidents can sneak up on you. Just ask Joel Dewitz, who is telling his story to warn other farmers of the dangers of grain bags and grain vacuums.
“I’m not proud of what we did, but I thought if maybe one person would happen to read the article and not do the same stupid thing we did, it would be worth it,” he said in an interview from his farm near Steele, in south-central North Dakota.
In late July, Dewitz and his son Jeff found themselves trapped inside the grain bag they were suctioning out with a grain vacuum.
Deer had punctured holes in the 10×300-foot grain storage bag filled with wheat. Some of the grain at the end of the bag was wet and spoiled.
Dewitz wanted to remove a semi-load of dry grain using a grain vacuum and shovel out the wet wheat on the bottom. As he wanted to close the bag up again, he didn’t cut the end of the bag. Normally, a grain bag unloader would be used, which extracts grain using an auger while rolling the bag up.
The end of the bag was opened and the father and son propped it open with scoop shovels. They entered the bag, one on each side of the grain vacuum hose, to feed grain into it.
The shovels loosened and fell over as grain was removed. Suddenly, the plastic bag sucked in around the hose entrapping them. They could still breath as a small amount of air was circulating from the hole where the tube entered the bag, but they could hardly move. Dewitz said it made him think of being grabbed by a python — the more you struggle the worse it gets.
“Our feet were probably 18 inches from the end of the bag but we were closer to the vacuum hose, which was seven or eight feet into the bag,” Dewitz said. “My son got caught stretched out flat so he could hardy move at all. I was on my knees and elbows and I did not have enough power to push back against the bag where my feet would come out the end and release the vacuum.”
Joel and Jeff could communicate, but not well over the roar of the grain vacuum.
“I had a phone in one pocket and a knife in the other pocket. I could feel them in the bottom of my pocket, but I couldn’t get to the top of my pocket to get them out,” Joel said. “My arms were pulled down so tight I couldn’t get my elbow back alongside my body to get into the top of my pockets.”
Dewitz had his finger pushed into the bag wall up to his knuckles trying to poke through, but it was in vain. Jeff put an arm into the hose trying to reduce the suction.
Luckily Joel was able to break an arm off his eye glasses and used it to puncture the bag. He signalled to his son to pull on one side and Joel pulled on the other making the hole bigger. The seal was broken allowing them to escape.
Dewitz said he was relatively unscathed, but his son went into shock.
He recovered quickly after having his legs elevated and was given something to drink.
They weren’t sure how long they battled to get free. Dewitz thought it might have been almost an hour; his son guessed 25 minutes.
“The concept of time didn’t mean anything to us,” he said. “It would have been real easy to just go to sleep and not fight.”
They suggest one way to prevent a similar accident would be to use the cage from a chemical tote to prevent the bag from collapsing around the vacuum hose and always having someone on the outside ready to shut off the grain vacuum if necessary.
However, North Dakota State University says no one should enter a grain bag when using a grain vacuum because of the suffocation hazard.
“The suction can ‘shrink wrap’ a person so he or she cannot move and will limit space for breathing,” an NDSU extension release says.