As a teenager on a farm, Delbert Willert understands firsthand the dangers of walking inside a grain bin — of the uncertain footing that can give way and leave a farmer buried and breathless in seconds. So when he saw a picture of rescue tubes used to extract people trapped in bins, he resolved to raise money so his fire department in Lake Benton, Minn., could buy one.
This week he learned that his good deed actually could save a life.
Delbert's story began in March 2011, when a neighbor fell in a grain bin and was rescued, but only after first responders jury-rigged a rescue device using plywood and wire. The seed of an idea sprouted for the 14-year-old later that October, when he saw the magazine picture of a rescue tube. He made grain bin dangers his 4-H safety project for the year.
With his father's help, Delbert presented information about the rescue tubes to businesses, agricultural associations, social clubs, health care providers and others in his western Minnesota community — with the goal of raising $5,000 for a single tube. But the community organizations were so impressed that they challenged him to do more — to raise as much as $17,000 so all five fire departments in Lincoln County could receive tubes and training on how to use them.
"If it wouldn't have been for him doing that project, nobody else would have stepped up to the plate," said Hendricks Fire Chief Scott Krier.
And if nobody had stepped up, there wouldn't have been a rescue tube available this past Monday in Hendricks, Minn., 22 miles from Lake Benton, when 29-year-old Cory Hanson lost his footing inside the Hendricks Farmers' Elevator and found himself buried neck-deep in grain kernels.
Such entrapments are often fatal; victims can be engulfed in seconds, and the weight of the grain presses against their chests and restricts breathing. Seventeen Minnesotans died in grain-handling accidents between 2003 and 2010, according to the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry. All of the deaths were from asphyxiation.
"Once you get grain up past your knees, you can't pull anybody out," Krier said. "It's impossible [without a device such as the tube]. ... You can shovel and move grain or whatever and it just runs back in like it is water."
Donations allowed all five departments in Lincoln County to receive tubes last summer as well as training on how to use them. The Hendricks volunteer firefighters hadn't used their tube in a live rescue when they received the call about Hanson, but they had practiced with it. They hoisted the tube in pieces atop the 40-foot elevator, then assembled it and lowered it bit by bit around Hanson, reducing the pressure of the grain against his body and allowing them to vacuum out the grain surrounding him.
Within 15 minutes of lowering the tube into the elevator, Hanson was free. He climbed a ladder out of the bin under his own power and asked to return to work. (His employer gave him the rest of the day off.)
Delbert, now 16, was having lunch at home when he got the unexpected call from his mother about the rescue.
"She was crying," Delbert said. "She said, 'Someone used your project and saved someone's life.' "