Grain accident ends in tragedy
Sparks fly as emergency personnel use cutting torches to make holes in a large steel bin at Crystal Valley Cooperative in Hope late Thursday night and early Friday morning. Once the holes were made, the soybeans were drained into awaiting payloaders on the outside.
-Joel Thiele, Helped With Recovery
When a man became entrapped in a bin of soybeans Thursday night, the father-son team of Joel and Dakota Thiele sprang into action with their payloaders.
The Thieles brought two payloaders to the scene of the grain bin accident at the Crystal Valley Cooperative in Hope. They were just winding down their day from construction work when they were notified of trouble at Crystal Valley.
“We had a call from a firefighter who knew we had the payloaders,” said Joel Thiele. “We had one at the farm and another one at the gravel pit by Ellendale.”
Thiele admits it’s a scenario he wishes never happened.
“It was one of those calls you don’t want to get, but you’ll be there to help out,” he said. “Everything was dropped and the loaders took off.”
While Dakota Thiele was on the scene within minutes, Joel Thiele had the second payloader there within an hour.
“I got there and they said start hauling,” Joel Thiele said.
They weren’t the only ones who responded to the scene with payloaders. Brian Keck of Keck’s Repair in Owatonna, Jim Misgen, JJD Companies and others all brought payloaders to help in the recovery of Paul Frantum, who became engulfed in a bin of soybeans while working for Crystal Valley.
CFS Cooperative, which is a competitor of Crystal Valley’s, also responded to the scene to aid in the recovery. CFS brought a loader and at least four grain vacuums.
“Even though that’s competition in farming, it was nice to see CFS help out Crystal Valley,” Thiele said.
The payloaders aided the recovery effort as rescuers frantically worked to recover Frantum’s body.
“The firemen cut holes in the bins, and we got the grain away as fast as we could with the payloaders,” said Thiele, noting many holes were made in the grain bin to allow the soybeans to be drained. The bin reportedly had about 250,000 bushels in it at the time of the incident.
Thiele said the grain was dumped off to the side away from the bin.
Loader after loader kept hauling grain away for about seven hours straight before Frantum was finally found around 4:30 a.m.
Despite their best efforts, Thiele said it was a tough night.
“You feel so helpless,” he said. “You wish you could hop in and help faster, but you have to do it a proper way so others don’t get hurt.”
Jack Volz, who operates a first responder training company in Minnesota Lake specializing in grain bin rescues, responded to the scene to aid in the recovery. Volz has provided training to nearly every fire department on the scene at last week’s grain bin tragedy.
“I was there to advise and watch for hazards for the firefighters,” Volz said. “This was one of the more challenging entrapments I’ve ever been involved in.”
Volz said the greatest obstacle firefighters faced was cutting through ½-inch steel to gain access to the grain. “It’s time consuming and hard on the equipment,” he said.
Adding to the frustration for rescuers was the fact they were dealing with soybeans. “They’re heavier and they move harder. They roll and they don’t shovel as easy,” Volz explained.
Despite the challenges, Volz was impressed with what he saw.
“I have to commend the fire departments as they worked amazing together,” he said. “We had the equipment, the knowledge and people there. The structure threw some challenges that a lot of departments would have crippled, but they made it through and did an amazing job.”
However, Volz has been left with mixed emotions after the recovery took place.
“This is training I give them that I hope we will never have to use,” he said. “We lost a father, a son and a great employee all wrapped into one.”
Volz is thankful for one thing.
“I’m glad the training I gave kept everyone safe, and I’m proud to see it comes together.”
This was Volz’s 14th entrapment that he has been involved in across southern Minnesota. Of those, six have resulted in fatalities and eight were rescued.
Asked how long someone can survive in grain, Volz said there is no definitive answer. “Everybody is different and there are a lot of variables. I’ve had some who were entrapped for 45 minutes and it was a recovery (where they died) while others survived for 2 ½ hours.”
Like Volz, it wasn’t the outcome the Thieles and others had hoped for.
“I wish it could have turned out better,” Joel Thiele said. “I’m glad we could help, but you feel bad that the help you did didn’t pan out the way you wanted.”
Added Joel Thiele’s brother, Sheriff Lon Thiele, who was on the scene most of the night, “I want to thank everyone for helping on the recovery process.”