Alex Boesl was thrilled for Christmas. To get ready, he strung colored lights around his bedroom and decorated his own small Christmas tree.
That tree now sits in Alex’s room at Children’s Hospital in Minneapolis, where the 12-year-old boy likely will spend the holiday after inhaling toxic silage gas Saturday morning at his family’s farm in Millerville, Minn.
Alex’s father, Curt Boesl, and his uncle, Steven Boesl, both died of exposure to the gas. When he realized his brother and nephew were in trouble, Steven climbed atop the silo to try to save them. He was pronounced dead at the scene.
In the midst of grieving the death of the brothers — farming partners and active community members who each served more than 20 years on the local fire department — the Douglas County city of 100 is rallying around Alex and the Boesl families.
“I’m asking everyone to please stop and pray, pray for a Christmas miracle,” Julie Boesl, Alex’s mother and Curt’s wife, wrote in a Facebook post. “We are completely shattered but we need everyone EVERYWHERE to pray for my little man.”
The post, which has thousands of shares and comments, shows a grinning Alex proudly pointing at his short Christmas tree, adorned with lights and red ornaments.
A CaringBridge page for Alex said he was surrounded by family and “using your prayers and the amazing medical staff to help him fight!”
A Monday morning update said he was tentatively scheduled for an MRI at noon, and that results would take a few hours. An update that night said: “What we know at this time is that Alex is very, very sick. His brain has been through a lot. We continue to pray for a miracle.”
A GoFundMe site to support both families raised more than $15,800 before organizers announced Sunday they would stop accepting donations.
A family endeavor
Farming deaths involving silage gases aren’t common, as the dangers of such fumes are generally well-known, said Anthony Kern, agriculture professor at the University of Minnesota, Crookston.
Silos can fill with two types of gases, both from the fermentation of silage — fodder for cattle and sheep made from green foliage crops, such as grass. Carbon dioxide is colorless, odorless and tasteless, and people may not even realize they are entering a silo filled with it, Kern said.
“It only takes seconds to be overcome by it,” he said, adding that the first few feet of air above silage can be pure carbon dioxide.
Another risk is nitrogen dioxide, which is present for only a few days or weeks after silage is put in the silo. It has an odor and can burn eyes, skin and lungs. Inhaling the gas can cause someone to lose consciousness and be trapped in a space with no oxygen.
Accidents involving toxic silage gases are more likely this time of year, Kern said, as farmers may think the gases have had enough time to clear out. If they must go in, he said, farmers can ventilate their silo by opening doors.
The circumstances leading up to the men’s deaths haven’t been released. Millerville Fire Chief Rodney Roers, who was one of the first responders to find the brothers — both of whom he’d worked with as firefighters — said they would have been aware of the dangers of silage gas.
“Something happened, some unfortunate incident happened,” Roers said in an interview Sunday. “But we don’t know.”
The first responders who retrieved the three family members, all of whom were unconscious, wore breathing apparatus. A couple of firefighters were admitted to the hospital for elevated levels of toxic gas in their systems, Roers said.
He said the Boesl farm is truly a family endeavor.
“If someone doesn’t realize what farming is, these were the guys to visit,” Roers said. “Some big corporate farm wouldn’t have the personal touch that these guys had.”
Now the community is working to find the best way to honor the brothers and continue the chain of prayers for Alex.
Hundreds of friends, family members, neighbors and even strangers have changed their Facebook profile photo to that of Alex posing in front of his decorated tree. Each one comes with the hashtag #Christmasmiracle.
Another Facebook photo making the rounds in Millerville shows two helmets, each emblazoned with the name “Boesl,” set atop a pair of jackets, boots and gloves. Propped together in front of the fire hall, the uniforms form a memorial to the brothers, who so often worked side by side.
“They lived as heroes and they died as heroes,” Roers said. “We know Steve sacrificed his life to try to save his brother and his nephew. He was a hero to the last breath of his life.”
Staff writer Erin Adler contributed to this report.