Some days just stay with a person. High school graduation, your wedding day, the birth of your child.
For Randy Froese, that day is Aug. 17, 2010.
“That’s the day I just about did not make it home,” said the grain farmer from Winkler, Man.
That morning started like any other. Froese decided it was finally time to do something about the pinto beans harvested the previous fall. The beans had come off wet, so the farm crew put six tandem loads into a hopper bin with a rocket aeration system and figured they would deal with the frozen beans in spring.
Come spring, about four truckloads were removed, but a thick 18-inch layer of mouldy beans remained, clinging to the side of the bin. The aeration was left on in hopes they would fall in on their own. They didn’t.
So that day in August, Froese decided to go into the bin. Alongside one of his employees, he descended the ladder and started chiselling away at the beans, while two other employees waited outside just in case.
That ‘just in case’ came quickly.
“We weren’t in there very long when about a third of the material let go,” said Froese.
His employee managed to get behind the rocket aeration system, but falling debris hit Froese in the leg, trapping him in a sitting position with his leg wrapped around one of the stanchions holding up the unit.
“With that, I was buried up to my chest, and not seconds later, another part of the wall let go, and before I knew it, I was buried two to three feet under material.”
A desperate situation
Froese was trapped, helpless, and all he could hear was his employee panicking.
“I could hear everything going on, but I couldn’t do anything,” he said. “For the five to 10 minutes I was completely under, I couldn’t move. I couldn’t talk. I couldn’t yell. I had to sit there trying to take in any air I could get.
“But I had to remain calm. I had taken my first aid courses and I knew that if I panicked or passed out from the pain, my chances of surviving were not going to be great.”
And the pain was “excruciating” as his knee bent at a 90-degree angle around the stanchion and the weight of the beans compressed him from all sides.
“At this point, I was sitting there thinking, ‘I’m not going home today. I’m not going to see my wife. I’m not going to see my daughter,’” he said. “I really reflected on everything in that short period of time.”
It took about 10 minutes of digging before the employee who was in the bin with him was able to find Froese under the beans.
“I could feel that they had finally found where I was, and they dug me out until I had my face clear,” he said. “I remember thinking to myself, ‘I’ve got a chance. I might get out of here.’”
Outside the bin, the employees called 911 and Froese’s father, who was back at the farm. With sirens wailing in the distance and time of the essence, Froese’s father joined the rescue mission, and he and another employee descended into the bin to help dig Froese out.
“Everything was collapsing in again,” he said. “It got to the point where I was buried again up to my waist. We knew we had to get me out. It was now or never.”
What Froese didn’t realize — and what his rescuers knew all too well — was that there was still a third of the beans clinging to the wall, ready to fall at any moment. With one final heave, the men pulled Froese free and immediately moved to the other side of the bin.
Seconds later, the rest of the beans let go.
“I likely would have been completely buried, along with one of my employees,” he said. “It was like God’s hand was on the bin, like He placed it up there and said, ‘No, this isn’t going to fall until you’re out of the way.’
“We just sat on the beans and we cried.”
Grain entrapment plans
Froese shared his harrowing experience during recent online screenings for the movie “SILO,” a 2019 film in which a teen entrapped in grain is the central dramatic event.
“Hearing from a real farmer who was fortunate to survive an entrapment makes the situation more real than a movie,” said Rick Taillieu, manager of grower relations and extension at Alberta Canola. “Farmers have and always will learn from each other, and we hope Randy’s story helps prevent a future tragedy.”
Sadly, Froese’s experience is still an all-too-common one on Canadian farms, said Rob Gobeil of the Canadian Agricultural Safety Association (CASA).
“Every year across Canada, we’re averaging between six and eight fatalities from grain entrapment,” Gobeil said during a Q-and-A session, hosted by several canola groups in support of CASA’s BeGrainSafe program.
Most farmers don’t realize how dangerous flowing grain is until it’s too late — and too late comes very quickly, he said.
“When grain is flowing, it behaves much like quicksand,” said Gobeil. “It takes between three and five seconds to become trapped in flowing grain, and once you’re trapped in grain, you’re helpless.”
Once the grain is past your knees, the odds of getting out without a rescue are “pretty slim,” he added.
“The deeper you go, the far less likely you are to get out on your own. It just stresses the importance of having that (entrapment emergency) plan.”
But most farmers don’t have such a plan, Gobeil added.
“If you do have to enter a confined space — and a grain bin is a confined space — you need, by law, to have procedures in place, and you need to have trained people,” he said.
“You need to have that process in place to make sure people come out in one piece. We all want to go to bed in the same shape we woke up in that day.”
That was the situation on Froese’s farm. None of the employees were trained to deal with an entrapment — and at the time, neither were the first responders on the scene.
That’s a common problem in small rural fire departments, one that the BeGrainSafe program is trying to remedy, said Taillieu. Since 2017, more than 500 firefighters from more than 30 fire departments across Western Canada have received the training.
“That’s a big part of why we wanted to do this training — to try and make sure there are more rural fire departments aware of what to do in this situation,” he said.
In the end, it took one hour to get Froese out of the bin, limping up the ladder toward the small opening of light. A bucket truck was waiting for him at the top, and though the ride to the hospital was a short one, his road to recovery was much longer.
Froese spent over a week in the hospital and many months recovering at home from the accident.
The impacts of that day will stay with him forever.
“It’s what I call God’s miracle in my life,” he said. “For me, it was a good time to realize that life is more than just working. We work, we work, we work. It’s easy to do that and we get caught up in it as life flies by.
“But we need to prioritize our time with our families.”
Froese hopes telling his story will help other farmers avoid the same fate.
“I pray that this story helps remind people that it can happen to anybody,” he said. “I didn’t think it was going to happen to me. I didn’t wake up that day thinking I wasn’t going to come home.”