Mont. firefighters rescue man chest-deep in sugar silo

The all-hands-on-deck incident required the Billings Fire Department crew to build a wooden box to assist in the rescue


By Griffen Smith
Billings Gazette, Mont.

BILLINGS, Mont. — The firefighters at Billings Fire Department station No. 2 took a break from their normal work Wednesday to be recognized by Gov. Greg Gianforte for the rescue of a man trapped in a Billings sugar silo last month.

"You leaned on your training and trusted your team. Any wrong move could have seriously injured the individual or your team," Gianforte said at the fire station. "On behalf of the state of Montana I thank you for your work."

The technical rescue team spent hours uncovering an employee of Western Sugar Co-Op who was buried chest-deep in sugar at the South Side factory on May 28, eventually pulling the man out in a wooden box built on the scene.
The technical rescue team spent hours uncovering an employee of Western Sugar Co-Op who was buried chest-deep in sugar at the South Side factory on May 28, eventually pulling the man out in a wooden box built on the scene. (Photo/Billings Fire Department)

The technical rescue team spent hours uncovering an employee of Western Sugar Co-Op who was buried chest-deep in sugar at the South Side factory on May 28, eventually pulling the man out in a wooden box built on the scene.

Gianforte said the rescue was the only successful one recorded by OSHA in similar situations. Without the technical unit's expertise, the man likely would have died.

Emergency responders first tried digging the man out of the sugar at 9:30 a.m. At that point the worker had been trapped in the sugar for two hours. Half a dozen firefighters crawled through the hole down into the silo and shoveled away the pouring sugar to keep his airway open.

But production did not stop, and the sugar continued to pile onto the man. It was too painful to pull him straight out from the fine grains that trapped his body.

Battalion Chief Kevin Bentz, who led the rescue, said a total of 30 emergency workers helped in the rescue. The difficulty with access made him call in a hazmat team for ventilation support. About a dozen off-duty firefighters also joined in. It was all hands on deck, Bentz said.

"This was a low frequency, high risk situation, which could go south fast," Bentz said. "We needed to assign our people to what they were good at: shoveling, cutting. I think we did a good job on that."

The crew then brought in a trailer with wood and assembled a box to place around him.

Rescuers multitasked while digging out the man, taking measurements for builders outside to construct the box. After two hours the man was freed using a multiple rope system and rushed to the hospital.

"We never know what to expect when we load up, that is why we don't prefabricate our rescue supplies," said Sean Biggins, the Billings fire chief training officer. "There is nothing about technical rescue that is fast. We have to be perfect in our response."

Biggins said members of technical rescue team take on several hundred more hours of training for building, water and silo extractions than average fire crews. Some training sessions take place at Western Sugar Co-Op.

Western Sugar has faced fines amounting to more than $100,000 in the past due to unsafe conditions for its employees. In 2016, The United States Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued nine citations totaling $115,900 in fines after the death of an employee at the Billings plant.

Gianforte toured the station and talked with firefighters who responded to the scene. He presented the station with a flag flown in their honor from the steps of the state capitol, the letter he wrote, and the Spirit of Montana Plaque addressed to the station.

The Spirit of Montana award is regular recognition of Montanans for their accomplishments, dedication, or service. Anyone can nominate Montanans for the Spirit of Montana award by contacting the governor's office at 406-444-3111 or by submitting the nomination online at governor.mt.gov/Spirit-of-Montana-Award.

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(c)2021 the Billings Gazette (Billings, Mont.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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