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Billings firefighters detail recent silo rescue

OSHA officials confirm 'open investigation'
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Posted at 11:57 AM, Jun 09, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-09 13:58:01-04

BILLINGS — An investigation is underway into what led to a worker being buried to his chest in late May at the Billings Western Sugar Cooperative, according to a spokesperson with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

However, what caused the incident is still unknown.

“This is an open case and because of it we cannot provide further information or details at this moment,” said spokesperson Josa Carnevali in an email late last week. Meanwhile, rescuers with the Billings Fire Department are recalling the incident as one they’ve never encountered -- even though they train for it.

A call came on May 28 concerning a worker at the plant buried in one of the massive sugar silos on Sugar Avenue on the Billings South Side. The man became trapped at 7:30 a.m., but it wasn’t until two hours later that crews from the Billings Fire Department were called to help.

That’s when the department’s rescue tech team was activated. What proceeded was two hours of some eight firefighters working inside the silo with the victim trying to move the sugar, and another 30 or so outside assisting and supporting the operation, according to Billings firefighter Cameron Abell.

Firefighters say the call was composed of a variety of rescue trades that Billings Fire typically already trains for, such as the use of ropes and confined space training. “We train for those types of situations,” said Billings Fire Capt. Dan Cotrell.

Cotrell says they train with the use of a construction trailer of sorts – filled with wood, tools, and supplies to build a rescue device for any situation. “This trailer is specifically for collapse, and confined spaces,” said Cotrell.

That Friday, when rescuers responded to Western Sugar, firefighters were seen on scene cutting wood to scale outside the plant, almost like it was a construction site. “So, it's got all different types of lumber that we can shore up with."

That’s exactly what they did, according to Abell, to save the worker’s life. “And so, we created a halo of safety, I guess is the way to describe it, that we built out of plywood,” said Abell.

Firefighter Gabe Hernandez was also asked to get inside the silo where the opening was small – some 18 inches wide. Inside, he described the scene like a snowscape because of granules of sugar-filled the 30-foot-wide silo.

He said, the rescue nerve-wracking and volatile because there was a chance of collapse. “It looked like a daunting task because every time you would dig the sugar, you know, it was pretty granulated, more would just kind of go around and was drawn inside the silo."

The process was slow and meticulous for rescuers to ensure the safety of their victims and themselves. “We worked on it for about two hours, and it was two pretty frustrating hours because it couldn't move too fast,” he said. “The sugar was about five to six feet above him, could potentially come down on top of him.”

But this exact rescue is one for the books for firefighters, as they were tasked with taking what they know already from previous training and accompanying that with new ways to problem-solve. “There’s a moment when you're in there and you realize that you are that person's only lifeline,” said Abell.

That’s when Abell also says the result, in this case, is a testament that training and a little engineering of the imagination can really pay off. “I think that I probably heard an actual sigh of relief from those inside the silo,” he said.“Just getting them out of the sugar was a huge, huge sigh of relief from everybody.”

Officials say the victim was released from the hospital that night.