Death in a silo


His head fell forward onto his chest, straight brown hair lifting slightly in the breeze. They’d tied his hands together in front of him. His pant legs pulled up high on his ankles by the harness that held him suspended outside the silo door.

He twisted slowly there in the late morning sunlight.

Cows murmured in a barn behind and a baby chattered on a blanket and birds sang; a dove circled the deathtrap they called a silo.

And the man – only his smooth face calls him a boy — he twisted in the air on one of the most beautiful days the year has seen so far.

It looked like a hanging.

The call came at 8:30 a.m. and they sent me, grabbing for pen and notebook and running to catch up with the photographer. The sun shone so brightly and the sky was cloudless and all that long drive, we listened to the scanner. One man trapped in a silo, unresponsive. Now two men trapped, neither responding. Waiting for a ladder truck.

I prayed silently. I didn’t want to see death today.

The farm lies on both sides of a rural road, sloping fields rising up to the trees on the ridges. There’s a house and a cattle barn and an equipment barn on one side; a bigger cattle barn and twin silos on the other.

And under the silos ambulances and medics and firefighters and firetrucks crowded the barnyard while a helicopter circled the fields, looking for a flat space to land.

Several Amishmen waited, leaning against a truck. One smoked a pipe, clouds of white smoke around his head. Other farm workers gathered, hugging each other, holding each other up, and waiting.

A group of Amish women and children approached us. One was barefoot, holding a 9-month-old girl. Their English was halting, nervous and heavily accented.

“Are they English or Amish?” the one asked me; she flinched when I told her Amish. They waited behind me, laying down a blanket for the baby to play on, talking softly now and then but mostly silent.

And then there was action and they were hauling a ladder up the side of the silo with a rope. There’s a narrow ladder climbing the silo but they needed one to put inside and when they finally get it through the window I watch, holding my breath, until I see a face framed in the window.

He looked like a boy. I learned later that he was 14. They helped him down the ladder and to a stretcher, put an oxygen mask over his face and then I saw her, the older Amish woman who’d been waiting there. I saw her lean over him, one hand up as if on his head, in his hair.

I hope she went with him in the ambulance. Because his brother was still inside.

The sun was beating down and there was death in that silo but the contrast was strange. Life in the birds and the cattle and the baby voice behind me and the daughter turning flips inside me and death inside the silo.

It was bad air. They’d filled it with cut grass and clover for silage just yesterday and did he think it was safe when he went in? But decomposing silage lets off carbon dioxide and displaces oxygen and it’s treacherous.

He called for help and his little brother was there, but the little brother found the bad air too and just escaped.

It was too late when they finally got in. They called it a recovery operation and fitted him into a harness, tying his hands so they wouldn’t catch on the silo window or the ladder. They tied him to the ladder and slowly pulled him out, slowly turned the ladder on the firetruck to slowly let him down on the other side.

But for too many long minutes the boy who had just become a man twisted there in the wind, head flopped forward, ankles showing above his boots.

He was 18 years old.

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1 Comment

Filed under Notebook sketches

One response to “Death in a silo

  1. Denise Barwell

    Devastating story, beautifully written, Heather.

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