Ever since Arick Baker was a kid, his father had warned him: “If you go down in the corn, you don’t come out.”
The enormous grain bins that dot the Iowa landscape store enough dried corn to swallow up a body completely, squeezing the breath and life from a person in seconds. Accidents happen, and they’re often fatal. In 2010 alone, 26 Americans were killed in silo accidents. For the firefighters of Iowa, more often than not, a trip to a grain bin isn’t a rescue operation—it’s a recovery mission.
On a Wednesday last June, however, 23-year-old Baker wasn’t thinking about the risks. With his dad, Rick, getting older and the only other farmhand over 70, Baker was increasingly responsible for the farm’s most unpleasant tasks. His first time cleaning out a dusty silo had taken all day Monday and Tuesday, and now he was just trying to finish the job.
That morning, while his father and another driver took turns hauling away truckloads of grain, Baker stood in the 60,000-bushel bin using a length of PVC pipe to try to break up the chunks of rotten corn that were blocking the flow. It was a sweltering day, and it was 137 degrees inside the massive cylinder of corrugated steel. Baker is asthmatic, so his dad had given him a battery-powered ventilation mask with a visor and a cloth that he tied under his chin. The mask didn’t make oxygen, but at least it filtered out all the dust kicked up while Baker worked ankle deep in the corn.
Around 10:30 that morning, Baker’s dad left his spot on the roof, where he’d been keeping an eye on his son, to turn off the augur, the rotating screwlike device that was churning at the base of the silo, moving the kernels of corn out of the bin and into the waiting truck. With the load complete, Baker’s father drove off. Just seconds later, Baker felt the corn beneath his feet give way.