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Worker suffocations persist as grain storage soars, employers flout safety rules

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Will Piper and Annette Pacas kneel at the grave of Pacas’s son, Alex, one of two young workers who suffocated in a grain bin in Mt. Carroll, Ill., in July 2010. Piper narrowly avoided death in the same incident.

John W. Poole/NPR

MT. CARROLL, Ill. — Will Piper and Alex Pacas were being buried alive.

It was July 28, 2010, just before 10 a.m., and the young men strained to breathe as wet corn piled up around them in Bin No. 9 at the Haasbach LLC grain storage facility. A co-worker, Wyatt Whitebread, had already been pulled under.

The ordeal in Bin No. 9 played out over 13 hours as hundreds of townspeople maintained a vigil outside. In the end, Whitebread, 14, and Pacas, 19, were dead. Piper, 20, avoided suffocation by inches.

Whitebread, compact and athletic, was happy to have summer work. Pacas, slight and musical, was an aspiring electrical engineer just days away from returning to classes at Hamilton Technical College in Davenport, Iowa. He’d started at Haasbach the day before.

“He prayed for his life,” survivor Piper said of Pacas’s last moments. “He said all he wanted to do is see his brothers graduate high school. And then he spouted off the Lord’s Prayer very quickly, and shortly after that one last chunk of corn came flowing down and went around his face.”

The three had been hired to keep corn flowing in the bin, one of 13 in the Haasbach complex on Mill Road in Mt. Carroll, population 1,700. They’d been sent in with pick axes and shovels that morning to break up corn piled 10 to 24 feet high in the bin and knock clumps from the walls. No one had told them they needed to wear safety harnesses — stored in a red shed nearby — to keep from sinking.

“I had no idea that someone could get trapped and die in the corn,” Piper told investigators with the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Grain storage in the United States is surging, in part because of the boom in biofuels. Yet at worksites, farmers and commercial operators keep making the same mistakes. Workers, some of them young, keep drowning in grain or getting hurt.

The practice known as "walking down grain" is illegal. Federal penalties for employers who permit or require it, however, are routinely pared. Since 1984, OSHA has cut initial fines for grain-entrapment deaths by nearly 60 percent overall, an analysis of enforcement data by the Center for Public Integrity and NPR shows. And even in the worst instances of employer misconduct, no one has gone to jail.

Twenty-six people died in entrapments in 2010, the worst year in decades. At least 498 people have suffocated in grain bins since 1964, according to data analyzed for the Center and NPR by William Field, a professor of agricultural and biological engineering at Purdue University.

At least 165 more people drowned in wagons, trucks, rail cars or other grain storage structures. Almost 300 were engulfed but survived. Twenty percent of the 946 people caught in grain were under 18.

“At some point we’re going to have to decide whether these incidents are just accidental … [or] somebody’s really making horrendous decisions that approach a criminal level,” said Field, who has studied entrapments since 1978 and served as an expert witness in grain-death lawsuits and as an industry and OSHA consultant. “It’s intentional risk-taking on the part of the managers or someone in a supervisory capacity that ends up in some horrific incidents. The bottom line is if you ask them why they did it, it was because it was more profitable to do it that way.”

After the Mt. Carroll accident, OSHA sought to make an example of the farming families that owned Haasbach by proposing a $555,000 fine for 25 alleged safety violations.

The Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division tacked on a $68,125 fine for the illegal employment of Wyatt Whitebread and three others who were too young to be working in a hazardous setting like a grain bin. OSHA sent its case to the Department of Justice and the state’s attorney in Carroll County, Ill., for possible criminal prosecution.

Although Haasbach paid the full amount for the child labor violations, the OSHA fine was reduced to $200,000. The Justice Department declined to prosecute, according to a Labor Department document provided to the Center in response to a Freedom of Information Act request. The state’s attorney “indicated lack of interest” in pressing charges, the document says.

Haasbach has been dissolved. Its officers declined through their lawyer to comment.

In an interview at their home, Wyatt Whitebread’s parents spoke of their lingering disquiet. They have brought a wrongful-death lawsuit against the principals of Haasbach and the company that leased the facility at the time of the accident, Consolidated Grain and Barge Co.

“I guess I’m vengeful,” said Gary Whitebread, a large-animal veterinarian. “I want [the defendants’] life to be affected like mine. I want them not to be able to go about their daily business like nothing happened.”

“You know, if nothing happens of this, then boys that age are expendable,” said Carla Whitebread, a high school Spanish teacher. “There’s no recourse for it. It didn’t hurt the company at all. And if nothing else happens, then why not hire 14-, 15, 16-year-old boys and just put them in there ... what’s the difference? It’s not going to cost you anything.”

Panic in Bin No. 9

Until Haasbach LLC acquired it in 2005, the grain-storage complex where Wyatt Whitebread and Alex Pacas died had been owned and operated by Consolidated Grain and Barge, a Louisiana firm with grain operations in 70 locations, mostly in the Midwest. The complex, about 10 miles east of the Iowa line, has a storage capacity of 2 million bushels.

Haasbach was formed by three farming families in northwestern Illinois; two of them, the Haases and the Harbachs, had operational control of the Mt. Carroll facility. After taking charge — “We purchased it for the storage of our grain rather than building more storage at home,” Willard Harbach explained in a deposition — Haasbach leased it back to Consolidated, which handled the weighing and inspection of the corn and dictated its condition. Haasbach’s and Consolidated’s corn was intermingled.

The corn crop stored in the summer of 2010, harvested the year before, was unusually wet, making it prone to clumping. People had to be sent into the bins to break it up; the Haasbach manager, Matthew Schaffner, needed extra help.

That summer, Schaffner’s daughter, Marti Jean, loaded trucks and cleaned out bins at Haasbach for $8 an hour. Then 15, M.J., as she was called, recruited her friend, Wyatt Whitebread, to work in the bins. He started July 19. Will Piper started the next day. At Piper’s suggestion, Matt Schaffner brought on Alex Pacas — known to friends as Paco — on July 27.

“Our job was to break up the rotten chunks of corn that prevented the corn from flowing into the center of the bin,” Piper said in an interview. “The training I received was just from Wyatt, telling me how to break up the corn, the best way that he did it. Later that day Matt came up and just kind of expressed to stay away from the center hole in the bin so that we didn’t get sucked up into that.

“But there was no safety training or anything like that.”

On July 28, Piper, Pacas, Whitebread and a fourth worker, 15-year-old Chris Lawton, showed up around 7 a.m. and were sent into Bin No. 9. It was a hot, humid day. Conditions inside the bin were oppressive.

About 9:45 a.m., Matt Schaffner opened the second of three holes in the bottom of the bin with the aim of improving the corn’s flow.

“It created kind of a quicksand effect,” Piper said. “So we worked around it and we were aware of it, and after a while … Wyatt ended up getting caught up in it and started screaming for help. Me and Alex went in after him, and we each grabbed one side of him under his armpits and started dragging him out, and got pretty close to the edge of the quicksand and then we started sinking in with him.”

Lawton scrambled out of the bin and went for help; he was so distraught he could barely speak. M.J. Schaffner turned off the conveyor that was running under the bin and making matters worse by drawing down the corn. She told her father that Piper, Pacas and Whitebread were stuck.

“And it was just me and Alex standing there up to our chests completely, just trapped in the corn,” Piper said. “And Wyatt was underneath. I was hopeful that he was still alive, but at this point I’m pretty sure that he suffocated pretty quickly. The pressure underneath the corn was just too great.”

Matt Schaffner climbed into the bin and began digging frantically to reach Wyatt. “After, like, 30 seconds of digging he realized that he wasn’t getting anywhere and there was no hope,” Piper said. “So he set his shovel down and I told him to go back outside so that the rescuers knew what bin to go in.”

Schaffner climbed out of the bin. The corn kept flowing around Piper and Pacas. “After a little bit [Pacas’s] hand was sticking up above the grain and I could just see his scalp, and his hand stopped moving,” Piper said. “And the corn was up to my chin at that point. And it was slowly trickling down … and I was about to be covered, too.”

Piper believes he was saved by the two inches of height he had on Pacas and a bottomless plastic bucket a firefighter had jammed over his head to keep the corn away from his face. The rescuers began vacuuming away the corn, a process that took about six hours. They were able to yank Piper out by the arms at about 4 p.m. He was put on stretcher and airlifted to a hospital in Rockford, 60 miles away.

Outside the Haasbach complex, a crowd was gathering. “We just sat on the grass, crying, and just waited and more people came,” said Lisa Jones, a mother of six who knew Whitebread, Pacas and Piper. “Church people came and brought food and water.”

Teenagers, many of them Whitebread’s classmates at West Carroll High School, filled the parking lot at the Land of Oz, a convenience store across the highway.

Jones stayed with Pacas’s mother, Annette, as the hours passed. Jones’s husband, Matt, a funeral home owner and the Carroll County coroner, was getting regular updates on the rescue effort and relayed the information to his wife by cell phone. “We knew it wasn’t good,” Lisa Jones said. Rescuers cut a series of triangular-shaped holes into the side of the steel bin, near the bottom, to help drain the corn. As it spilled out onto the ground, volunteers shoveled it away.

Word came that one of the workers was alive, though “they didn’t know which one,” Jones said. “And so all of the families were just sitting there, waiting, and then, finally, we knew Will was alive. And then they brought Will out and … he had, like, indentations all over his skin from corn.”

“The chaplain called us over and he said they got Will out and he was face to face with Alex and Alex is deceased,” Annette Pacas said. It took another six hours for Alex’s and Wyatt’s bodies to be recovered.

“One of the things as a mom I’ve really struggled with is that my son died in terror,” Pacas said. “He didn’t die in peace.”

Gary Whitebread fixates on a detail he missed in the days prior to his son’s death.

After Wyatt broached the idea of working at Haasbach, Gary drove to the site. He saw workers sweeping corn from a near-empty bin; that, he understood, was what Wyatt would be doing. He allowed Wyatt to take the job.

In the Whitebread household, Gary did the laundry. During the brief period Wyatt worked at Haasbach, “my washer would be full of corn,” Gary said. “And I’d reach in his pockets and there’d be corn in his pockets. And that should have been a red light to me. I mean, if you’re sweeping an empty bin out or standing in corn maybe up to your knees, you’re not going to have corn in your pockets.”

Piper, the survivor, continues to struggle. “I guess the incident itself wasn’t the worst part about it,” he said. “It was the fact that I lost Wyatt and Alex. … They were both like family, like brothers, to me.”

Tall and thin, with close-cropped red hair, Piper was a self-described “band geek” in high school who held jobs at the Dairy Queen in Mt. Carroll, the Metform Machine Components factory in nearby Savanna and a Minnesota ski resort before signing on at Haasbach. He and the dark-haired Pacas, also a musician, were inseparable.

“He was the one person I shared everything with,” Piper said. His goal is to raise money for a permanent headstone for Pacas’s grave at the Oak Hill Cemetery; a teetering, weather-beaten plastic marker stands there today.

Wyatt Whitebread, younger and sandy-haired, was a mischievous charmer. “He would gather people to play baseball or soccer or blow up my backyard,” Lisa Jones said, laughing. “I spent a lot of time saying, ‘Wyatt!’ And he’d just smile real big and then you weren’t mad anymore.”

Aftermath: citations and litigation

The OSHA investigation into the Mt. Carroll accident began the evening of July 28 and culminated not quite six months later with the issuance of three citations alleging 25 violations by Haasbach, including failing to train the four young workers in Bin No. 9 in “safe work practices” and failing to turn off the conveyor under the bin.

Twelve violations were classified as willful, suggesting Haasbach either disregarded or was “plainly indifferent” to the law. An internal OSHA document obtained by the Center and NPR offered justification for the willful violations: The people in charge of Haasbach had worked around grain for 30-plus years, the document says, and had heard about grain entrapments.

All told, OSHA wanted Haasbach to pay $555,000 in penalties.As often happens, the final amount was whittled down.

A Center-NPR analysis of OSHA data shows that 179 people died in grain entrapments at commercial facilities — bins, rail cars, etc. — from 1984 through 2012. The fines initially proposed in these cases totaled $9.2 million but were cut to $3.8 million, a reduction of 59 percent. Given that some of these cases are still open, the fines could drop lower still.

The five largest fines, which ranged from $530,000 to $1.6 million, were cut by 50 to 97 percent.

Haasbach wound up paying $200,000 for the violations in Mt. Carroll, a 64-percent discount.

In an interview, OSHA chief David Michaels explained: “We had them open their books and we determined that $200,000 was the appropriate fine. The company also agreed to go out of business and to notify OSHA if they ever went back into business, so we could conduct very strict oversight of them.”

Carla Whitebread was unimpressed.

“I mean, for the company, that amount of money doesn’t make any difference at all,” she said. Indeed, data compiled by the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit research organization, show that the seven-member Harbach Family Partnership received $6.5 million in federal farm subsidies from 1995 through 2011, Haas and his son $1.4 million.

“When I first saw the fine of half a million, I bawled,” Annette Pacas said. “A half a million dollars and you killed two kids and ruined a third. And now it’s down to [$200,000] … It’s disgusting.”

The Whitebreads, Annette Pacas and Will Piper have lawsuits pending against Haasbach and its lessee, Consolidated Grain and Barge. In court documents, each defendant blames the other for the accident.

Haasbach partner Robert Haas faulted Consolidated for storing corn with a moisture content exceeding 15 percent.

“They would always put grain in the bins in Mt. Carroll at 16 percent,” Haas told Kevin Durkin, lawyer for the Whitebread and Pacas families, in a deposition. “You get over 15 you almost know you’re going to have problems. [The corn] starts to rot. It will mold. It will stand up. It will just, you know, do everything that you don’t want it to do.”

Haas said he considered the facility a “farm entity,” beyond OSHA’s jurisdiction. Under questioning by Department of Labor lawyer Denise Hockley-Cann, however, he acknowledged that no crops or livestock had ever been raised on the property.

In the Labor Department deposition, Haas described Consolidated as “a commercial grain buyer” and suggested that it bore responsibility for the job site. “Whatever has got to be done with the grain, Consolidated calls the shots,” he said.

Another partner, Willard Harbach, testified that he knew safety harnesses were kept on site but thought they were used to protect workers from falls, not to keep them from sinking into piles of corn. Both he and Haas said they were unaware that teenagers, some underage, worked in the bins.

“I now know that it’s illegal” to allow a 14-year-old to work in a commercial bin, Harbach said in a deposition taken by Durkin. Harbach added, incorrectly, that if Haasbach were a farm entity — which, in his eyes, it was — employing a 14-year-old “would not be illegal.” The Fair Labor Standards Act prohibits children younger than 16 from working in hazardous settings on farms.

Haasbach maintains that the families of Whitebread and Pacas are entitled only to workers’ compensation, not damages, because comp is the exclusive remedy for employees under Illinois law. Should this argument prevail, each family would receive only funeral expenses, capped at a certain amount. Gary Whitebread said he understood that Wyatt’s death would be worth $5,000 under workers’ comp – not enough to pay for the funeral.

In its answer to the lawsuits, Consolidated — whose representatives declined to be interviewed for this story — denied that it managed the Mt. Carroll facility, although it kept a small office there and had employees on site.

“The danger of ‘walking down grain’ without employing proper safety precautions was known to Consolidated Grain and Barge and its employees involved in grain handling and grain storage,” the company stated in a court document. “However, Consolidated Grain and Barge was not involved in grain handling in the operation of Bin No. 9 on the date of the occurrence.”

Consolidated contended that Whitebread’s and Pacas’s negligence contributed to their deaths, Piper’s negligence to his near-suffocation.

In his own deposition, Will Piper said there was no way the Consolidated employees could have missed what was happening: He and other workers were entering bins without harnesses. “They’re not stupid,” Piper said. “They watch us climb the ladders. What else would we be doing?”

Matt Schaffner told the Labor Department’s Hockley-Cann that he did the hiring and handed out work assignments at Haasbach. He testified that he cautioned Wyatt Whitebread, Alex Pacas, Will Piper and Chris Lawton to stay away from the center of the inverted cone inside any of the bins and to wear dust masks.

Schaffner spent about five minutes on safety training for each of the workers, he said: “It was a pretty straightforward job.” The harnesses hanging in the nearby shed weren’t discussed, Schaffner said.

Annette Pacas finds this inexcusable. “The harnesses that would have saved these kids were in a shed on the property, collecting dust and cobwebs,” she said.

Pacas’s sister, Catherine Rylatt, was so shaken by the accident that she formed the Grain Handling Safety Coalition and speaks regularly at agricultural conferences. She believes the Haasbach partners got off lightly.

“If the criminal case is gone, I think it’s a missed opportunity and it pisses me off,” said Rylatt, who lives near Dallas.

Carla Whitebread, a retired Army major and helicopter pilot, said she understood that when Consolidated owned the operation, prior to selling it to Haasbach in 2005, the company used its safety equipment. “And to the best of my knowledge, on the day that Haasbach took over they just quit doing it. I don’t know why they wouldn’t have done it,” she said. “And I can’t believe that they put the boys in there, being so young.”

Said her husband: “Anybody that worked in that office that knew kids were going into that bin without safety equipment should be held responsible. This is a multi-, multi-failure thing.”

‘Cost of Doing Business’

OSHA’s Michaels says the grain storage industry was on the agency’s radar even before Mt. Carroll. “We’ve been very, very hard on this industry,” he said. “We now do triple the number of inspections that we were doing four years ago. We continue to issue fines in excess of $100,000 over and over again.”

On May 29, 2009, 14 months before the Haasbach accident, 17-year-old Cody Rigsby suffocated in a grain bin in Haswell, Colo. Like Wyatt Whitebread and Alex Pacas, Rigsby became entrapped while walking down the grain; three other teenagers, exposed to the same hazard, made it out alive.

OSHA proposed a $1.6 million fine against the bin’s owner, Tempel Grain Elevators LLC of Wiley, Colo. The U.S. attorney’s office in Denver brought criminal charges against Tempel, and a plea agreement was reached in 2011: the company would pay $50,000 to settle the OSHA case and another $500,000 — all of which would go to Rigsby’s family — to close out the criminal case. It would serve five years’ probation.

OSHA characterized the case as a victory.

Victim advocate Ron Hayes, who believes the criminal case against Tempel should have resulted in jail time, sees it as a failure. Authorities “had the perfect opportunity to send a clear message out to the grain facilities and CEOs of this country that we will not stand by and let you continue to kill our workers,” he said.

For Hayes, it’s personal. Around 1:30 p.m. on Oct. 22, 1993, he got a call at the X-ray clinic he managed in Mobile, Ala. His 19-year-old son, Patrick, had suffocated in a Florida grain bin. When Hayes and his wife, Dot, arrived at the scene, around 5 p.m., “they had just taken Pat’s body to the morgue,” Hayes said. “And, you know, I was really surprised because the company was still working. And I felt like this was a major disaster and I couldn’t understand why they were still working and didn’t feel like there was anything wrong.”

Pat Hayes had been sent into the bin, operated by Showell Farms Inc., with two other men to “walk down” the corn – keep it flowing. A screw-like device known as an auger, used to move corn out of the bin and into trucks, was running at the time, loosening the pile. Pat Hayes sank in up to his knees, and his co-workers weren’t able to pull him out as the corn began to cover him.

Showell Farms paid a $42,000 fine for Pat Hayes’s death, 92 percent less than the $530,000 recommended by the OSHA inspector in the case.  What began as willful violations were downgraded to “serious” ones, a move an OSHA reviewer later deemed inappropriate.

“After a careful in-depth review of this case,” the agency’s William Mason wrote in a confidential 1994 memorandum, “it is my strong belief that willful violations occurred.” The Labor secretary at the time, Robert Reich, publicly apologized to Ron Hayes.

Hayes left the X-ray clinic and became a full-time advocate for families of workers killed on the job. In that capacity he met with Michaels and three other top OSHA officials in October 2010, three months after the Mt. Carroll accident.

“And in that meeting, [OSHA chief of staff] Deb Berkowitz says, ‘Ronnie, can you help us figure out how we can stop these workplace deaths and injuries?’” Hayes recalled. “I said, ‘The only way you’re going to fix this is to put somebody in prison.’ ”

That has proven difficult. Under the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, an employer who commits flagrant violations that cause or contribute to a worker’s death faces at most six months behind bars, a misdemeanor. By comparison, some environmental crimes – polluting a river or killing an endangered animal, for instance – are felonies.

“Sending a 14-year-old into a grain bin without proper safety equipment should be as unacceptable as discharging a pollutant into a waterway that kills fish,” said Jane Barrett, a former federal prosecutor who now teaches at the University of Maryland School of Law.

Labor Department data show that there have been at least 19 fatal and non-fatal grain entrapment incidents since 2001 that drew willful citations, which trigger consideration of federal charges. Eight of these cases were referred to federal prosecutors. Three resulted in charges and guilty pleas, though no jail time; one is still under review.

Gary Shapiro, the acting U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Illinois, had no comment on the Haasbach case, a spokesman said. Carroll County State’s Attorney Scott Brinkmeier declined to be interviewed.

Brinkmeier could have sought involuntary manslaughter charges against the Haasbach partners, said J. Steven Beckett, a professor at the University of Illinois College of Law.

“I think it’s a case that should have been prosecuted,” Beckett said. “Somehow, these deaths are just a cost of doing business.”

Chris Hamby contributed to this story.