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.”