Worker OK after accident at local grain elevator

Thomas Berntsen was trapped for nearly 7 hours

Rescuers work during the rescue of Tommy Berntsen last month. Berntsen was stuck in a grain bin at Farmers Coop Grain Association in Conway Springs.

From the March 31 print edition

By Sam Jack

Thomas Berntsen’s situation at around 1:30 p.m. Tuesday, March 22, was potentially serious. He was totally stuck – submerged up to his shoulders in soybeans after a mishap while cleaning out a grain bin at the Farmers Coop Grain Association in Conway Springs. 

“When we first got in to (clean) the bin, it had a little bit down in the bottom that was plugged up, and when I went to unplug it, it started kind of pulling me in, and the rest of the grain just slid in as it was emptying out, and kind of buried me there at the bottom,” said Berntsen. 

A harness Berntsen was wearing kept him from being totally engulfed. He compared the sensation of entrapment to being in a full-body cast. 

“I just couldn’t move at all. You couldn’t wiggle your legs or nothing,” he said. “I could wiggle my toes inside my boots, but that was about it.”

In some cases of grain entrapment, the pressure can be so great that it interferes with breathing and leads to asphyxiation. Berntsen, fortunately, was not subjected to that much force. Soon after responders arrived, they reported he was in stable condition and was able to communicate with rescuers.

But medical professionals were still concerned about the cumulative effect of the pressure, according to Sumner County Emergency Management director James Fair.

“Once the body has been entrapped for a while, with that kind of pressure around you, you’re not getting the circulation of your blood that you normally would, so consequently, it causes your blood to become toxic,” said Fair. “When, all of the sudden, now you free this individual, and the blood starts flowing back to the heart, that’s when you have the opportunity for a person to go into shock. 

Those toxins in the blood can harm that person. That’s why it was imperative that we had paramedics on hand that could start an IV and get the proper field medications to this individual.

“These are things that have been lessons learned over the years, around the country, from these kind of things occurring,” Fair added.

Rescuers from Kansas Task Force 5 – specially trained to perform grain bin entrapment rescues – converged on the Conway Springs grain elevator, with rescuers and equipment hailing from the Wichita, Sedgwick County and Winfield fire departments. Local volunteers with the Conway Springs Fire Department were the first responders on the scene.

“We were there throughout the whole scene and provided support and manpower,” said Conway Springs fire chief Mike Erker. “The technical part of it we left up to them, because those guys are trained and very knowledgeable on what they were doing.”

Rescuers inserted hard panels into the soybeans surrounding Berntsen, then began removing grain to create a hollow near his body. It was a slow process.

“Basically what you’re doing is no different than a car accident,” said Fair. “With a car accident, you remove the car from around the patient. That’s the same thing they did with (Berntsen).”

When Berntsen was finally released from the grain, shortly after 8 p.m., paramedics loaded him onto a medical evacuation helicopter and quickly began work to combat possible complications.  

For Berntsen and his family and friends, the grain entrapment was a nerve-wracking ordeal. Berntsen later learned that rumors had flown that he had taken a fall from the top of the grain elevator. His brothers and other family at the scene were very worried.

“I was told I had a good chance for cardiac arrest, kidney failure and all that stuff, so...” Berntsen said, trailing off. “But when I got to the hospital, they said that because I had a bigger body mass, it actually helped out quite a bit. My blood flow wasn’t really restricted as much as they thought it was.”

Berntsen spent the night at the hospital and was released the following morning. He was back at work at the Conway Springs Coop by Thursday, and he reported no lingering ill effects.

He has not yet gone back inside any of the grain bins, he said Monday.

“I closed up the bin the other day, but I didn’t go back in. I think we’re going to have to do some extra training and stuff, before we can figure out a new process and actually go back in. We’re all going to have to learn from it and figure out how to do it better,” he said.

Tommy Berntsen