Silver screen grain entrapment mirrors real-life peril for Winkler farmer

Canola growers’ associations used virtual screenings of movie ‘Silo’ to discuss dangers of work inside grain bins

As Randy Froese sat buried beneath two or three feet of mouldy pinto beans at the bottom of a hopper bin, his phone began to ring.

It was probably his wife, he thought, calling to ask when he’d be home for supper.

“As I sat there, I couldn’t move,” he said. “I thought, I am not going home today. I’m not going to see my wife. I’m probably not going to see my daughter.”

This is not the pivotal scene in a movie. This is Froese’s real-life story. The Winkler-area farmer told his harrowing tale after a screening of the movie “Silo” hosted by canola associations across Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta.

Spoiler alert — Froese escaped the bin. He calls it a miracle from God.

Two workers had stayed outside. One went for help while the other climbed inside. His dad arrived and, while still on the phone with 911, climbed down and began digging.

They freed him seconds before another avalanche of beans detached from the side of the bin.

Froese would spend a week in hospital recovering from crush syndrome, and months after recuperating at home.

Teenage farmhand Cody (Jack DiFalco) struggles to breathe after he’s sucked into flowing corn.
photo: Silo the Film

However, an average of six to eight Canadian farmers die each year in grain entrapments, said Robert Gobeil, agricultural safety and health specialist with the Canadian Agricultural Safety Association (CASA).

Hence the movie screenings for farmers across the Prairies on December 11 and 14. The Co-operator took in the second screening and panel discussion on Dec. 14.

“Silo” is a 2019 film directed by Marshall Burnette and stars Jim Parrack as Junior, a farmer in the U.S. Midwest who is struggling to farm while caring for his aging father, who is gradually succumbing to dementia.

Teenage workers Cody, played by Jack DiFalco and Lucha played by Danny Ramirez follow experienced farmhand Sutter (James DeForest Parker) to the top of a 50-foot bin and climb inside to break up bridged corn.

When Junior’s father switches on the auger, Sutter is sucked beneath the flowing corn and Cody is trapped up to his chest.

A team of untrained, small-town firefighters must try to keep Cody alive long enough for proper rescue equipment to arrive.

As a movie, “Silo” is a far cry from an Oscar-winning endeavour but it does its best to inject conflict and relational drama. The firefighter in charge is the town drunk. Cody, who is asthmatic, gasps for air (his inhaler in his pocket beneath the corn) as the motley band of rescue workers struggle to free him.

However, as a morality tale about how quickly things can go wrong, “Silo” appears to strike many notes of accuracy.

It takes between three and five seconds to become trapped in flowing grain, Gobeil told the audience. Once you’re buried past your knees, “the odds of getting out are pretty slim,” he said.

“It behaves much like quicksand,” he said.

The silver-screen farm appears to have no safety plan when the workers climb inside. Lead farmer Junior doesn’t even know they’re in the bin. This is also not uncommon.

By Manitoba law, a grain bin is considered a “confined space,” said Gobeil. Workplace safety law requires that procedures be in place and the workers be trained in them. An observer must remain outside the bin while people work inside.

But many farms are ‘mom-and-pop’ operations and struggle to balance manpower with the rules, Gobeil said.

Like their movie counterparts, rural fire departments are often poorly prepared for a grain bin rescue, added panel host Rick Taillieu, manager of grower relations and extension with Alberta Canola.

They know how to rescue someone from a burning house or a rolled vehicle, but a grain bin is a different matter — dark, cramped, difficult to get equipment inside.

CASA’s BeGrainSafe program began in 2015 to address these issues. Along with producer awareness and youth safety, CASA trains firefighters in proper grain entrapment rescue procedures.

Using its mobile BeGrainSafe trailer, CASA can entrap a mannequin or person in flowing grain in a controlled environment to demonstrate rescue procedures.

The program has trained over 500 firefighters at more than 30 departments between Alberta and Ontario.

While Froese’s father and co-workers dug him out of the beans, the firefighters who responded to the scene weren’t trained for a grain rescue, he said.

That’s changed since his accident in 2010. The Winkler fire department got grain rescue equipment. Local ag dealers donated a bin so firefighters can practise.

About the author

Reporter

Geralyn Wichers

Geralyn Wichers grew up on a hobby farm near Anola, Manitoba, where her family raised cattle, pigs and chickens. Geralyn graduated from Red River College’s Creative Communications program in 2019 and was previously a reporter for The Carillon in Steinbach. Geralyn is also a published author of science fiction and fantasy novels.

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