Escaping death

STREETER, N.D. - You don't have to convince Alan Ruff how dangerous grain bins are. He nearly died in one last January. The hole in the top of the elevator still is there - a makeshift window that was cut with a torch at the last minute to allow ...

STREETER, N.D. - You don't have to convince Alan Ruff how dangerous grain bins are. He nearly died in one last January.

The hole in the top of the elevator still is there - a makeshift window that was cut with a torch at the last minute to allow rescuers to shovel the sunflower seeds out on the ground, so that he could be pulled from the grain.

It was a close call, Ruff acknowledges. He tells his story somewhat reluctantly, wishing it never happened at all, but he hopes his brush with disaster might help someone else.

"And I can't help but think, with all of this corn coming in, that we have a lot of new storage that we didn't have before," Ruff says.

Not dry enough


It was late October when the Ruff family finished combining sunflowers last year. Ruff farms with his brother, Ken, and their father, Harry. The family has grown sunflowers for 74 years and had cut back from a peak of 3,500 acres in the late 1990s and only harvested 1,200 last year.

The last of the sunflowers went into a 15,000-bushel bin the Ruffs had rented from the Farmers Co-op Elevator Co. Ruff lives in town, so the bin is only about a block from his house.

"They rent them out," Ruff says of the bin, which is about 25 feet tall and 30 feet in diameter, likely built with Commodity Credit Corp. storage money.

"Most farmers fill them to the top and don't leave a ring of space. We didn't have enough flowers (The blackbirds probably got them.) so we didn't have it completely full. That's why I was up there."

The flowers were binned at 12 percent moisture - a few 14 percent - not exactly optimal, a bit less than the 10 percent moisture level that's best. The top of the seed pile stood about 4 or 5 feet down the side.

In retrospect, Ruff says he should have run the fans longer in the fall. He should have - could have - let them run 24 hours a day for 10 days, but probably didn't do that.

"We turned it off a little quick," Ruff says.

In the Ruffs' yard, they try to check sunflowers every 10 days or so.


"That's a rule of thumb, but it's sort of weather-related deal," he says. "If it gets cold and stays cold, the grain is more apt to stay in good condition until it warms up the spring. But if you have a winter like last one - it gets warm, cold, warm, cold - you have what I call a heat inversion. You get frost and moisture built up, and that makes a crust."

Cold, warm,

cold, warm

Last January in Streeter started out with 12 days in the upper 20s or better - five days with highs above freezing. Then came a deep freeze.

According to the NDAWN automated weather data, daily lows at Streeter fell to nearly 23 below-zero Fahrenheit for six days in a row. Jan. 12 was the coldest day of the winter - the high temperature was 11 below zero, and the low was officially 23.7 degrees below zero.

The cold loosened its grip Jan. 17. The morning low had stalled out at 17 degrees above zero and by midmorning was inching toward 26 degrees.

Ruff and brother Ken decided to sell sunflowers, partly because of the storage conditions.

At 9 a.m., Ruff went to the bin and started augering seeds out from the north side. He'd pulled out about 150 bushels out when he stopped.


"I thought, 'I'd better go check to make sure we don't have a crust on top.'"

Ruff switched off the take-out auger, but he left the tractor running and a semi-trailer truck running. "I went up, and sure as heck, there was a crust up there."

It was about 9:10 a.m. when Ruff entered the bin, up a ladder on the south side.

He'd had taken a shovel with him up the ladder. He immediately set about scooping pieces of crust out of the manhole.

But things weren't happening as he expected.

Particularly, he wasn't seeing the characteristic "funnel" form in the top of the grain, above the take-out auger in middle of the bin.

Just then, a chunk of crust came down. Ruff - almost near enough to the wall to touch it - laid his shovel aside to grab the chunk.

"That's when I went down," Ruff says.


Waist deep?

No problem

Ruff was up to his waist in shuffling, shifting sunflowers.

"But I thought: 'No big deal.' I didn't even get excited at all," Ruff says. "There were only 150 bushels out of the bin. I was dressed pretty warm. I'll start yelling. I figured it might be an hour or two before the guys in the (elevator) house would know that I was in here."

Moments later, however things took a turn for the worse.

"I started yelling," Ruff says. "But all of a sudden, I felt myself slipping a little bit more, a little bit more . . . a little bit more. And now I'm up to here," pointing to his upper chest.

"Then I really started yelling - almost like a panic mode. You start thinking of your daughter, your family - this and that. Then, I told myself, 'God, if I'm going to die, I'm going to die. It's up to you.' I made my peace. I was thinking about how mean I was being to my family because now I'm not there to help the wife out, the brother out with the farming. My thought process changed."

Just then, he heard a voice from above.


Scotty Mittleider, one of the hired men at the elevator, had heard Ruff's calls for help and had crawled up the ladder. That was a miracle in itself, Ruff says, because he knew Mittleider had a phobia for heights. But he had crawled 25 feet to the top of the bin, on one of the CCC ladders of the day - only about a foot wide.

"And he'd crawled all the way up that ladder and threw a rope over toward me," Ruff says.

But Mittleider's rope was too short.

"'Scotty,' I said, 'you've got to go get help, get Jeff (Williams, the co-op manager). Because I'm still sinking,'" Ruff recalls telling Mittleider.

Every time Ruff moved, more grain would come down.

"And that crust was up there," Ruff says. "I thought all I need is for that crust to come down - even knock me out yet."

Ruff told Mittleider that he would put his cap over his face to prevent the sunflowers from getting into his mouth and choking him. He told him that if he went under, he'd hold his arm straight up, so that rescuers might locate him if he became submerged.

"So try to remember where I'm at," Ruff says he told Mittleider.


Mittleider went down the ladder and soon was replaced by Jeff Williams, the grain elevator manager, who had a longer rope. Now, Mittleider entered the bin and Williams stayed outside by the manhole.

"I wrapped it around my arm, and they started pulling and I thought they were going to rip my arm off," Ruff recalls. "I didn't budge at all."

Then Mittleider came in and held the rope while Williams went to call 911.

It was about 10 a.m.

Events accelerated.

Like a suction

Rescuers tend to have more training for a rescue attempt for someone who is submerged in the grain - less for someone at the top of a bin.

Two other elevator workers entered the bin and started shoveling grain away from him. Soon there were four. Ruff started to think about whether his rescuers might become victims in the sinking sunflower seeds.

"I thought, if there'd be another hole, and those guys start going down, that'd

really suck."

He told the men they needed to bring planks and ladders up into the bin to prevent a bigger tragedy. Boards were brought in.

A local construction company had a cutting torch with a long torch line, and they lifted the guy up to cut a hole in the bin. The men shoveled the sunflowers man to man to get it out of that hole in the wall.

"I was still going down a little bit at a time," Ruff says. "But finally they could get the rope down underneath my arms, and I was close enough to a sidewall, that they took a Come Along (tool) and tied the rope to a vent."

Still, there was no pulling Ruff out - even with the Come Along, even with the rope under his arms. The men kept digging until only his lower legs were covered.

With one man still digging in front of him, three other men - pulling together - gave a mighty heave.

"I popped free," Ruff says. "The guy in the middle, I landed over the top of him. That's how hard they were pulling."

Ruff's position in the bin must have made a difference, he says, because the men around him somehow were able to walk out of the seeds even though they also were up to their knees.

"It's like a suction."

Once freed, Ruff was helped out of the bin with a boom truck, provided by the power company.

Three big errors

In retrospect, Ruff says he made at least three mistakes.

"One, I didn't have a mask on," he says.

"Two, I laid the shovel down because a big chunk (of grain crust) came down, and I laid the shovel down to grab that chunk. Just when I laid that shovel down, that's when I went down."

Third, he didn't have another person outside of the bin.

He and other farmer friends now speculate if somehow the grain had frozen at some kind of slant in the bin. When the air was turned on, he thinks some spots that didn't freeze as much - or more - created a sort of slanted "tunnel" that made the grain drain at an unexpected angle.

"Even a couple elevator guys said, 'How come you couldn't get out?'" Ruff says. "They'd say they could jump into grain up to their waist and walk out. I say it was just like quicksand. It's sucking you down. When you jump on the grain, you're pushing it down; this was pulling me down."

Initially, Ruff was convinced to go on the radio and describe his ordeal, hoping to help others. There were blurbs in the Associated Press that relatives saw as far away as Phoenix.

Ruff can't say enough about the courage of people who rescued him. People made Herculean efforts to get there fast - from Streeter and from nearby towns such as Gackle and Medina, N.D.

With all of the new storage going up, Ruff worries. Corn and sunflower are combined when it's cold, sometimes on the wetter side.

He thinks it would be wise for people to check bins more often, leave the air on longer and colder and remove some of the grain to take the peak off.

"The heat goes to the middle and comes up, and if you've got that crust, that's where the peak is going to form. If you take the peak off, you eliminate half the problem."

Dozens of people have approached Ruff since his episode, often telling him of their own brushes with disaster. One guy near Streeter told how he'd nearly been drowned by sunflowers in a 5,000-bushel bin.

Ruff thinks larger bins and capacities offer a bigger challenge. There is more chance of different loads with different moisture levels within those bins. More chance for heating. More crusting.

More of a temptation to move quickly - without thinking.

"The safest, smartest thing is to over-run your fans," he says. "If you think it's dry, run it another day or two. And take the peak off the grain because that's where the moisture collects."

Ruff hopes farmers will stay safe and not rush their work beyond their ability to stay safe.

The price of grain - even at today's prices - isn't worth the risk.

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