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.