Expert urges education on dangers of 'grain engulfment' after Alberta farm tragedy
The death of three sisters on an Alberta farm brings the total number of engulfment deaths this year to seven.
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WITHROW, Alta. — An agriculture safety expert is calling for more education about dangers on the farm after three Alberta sisters suffocated while playing in a truck loaded with canola.
Glen Blahey with the Canadian Agricultural Safety Association says it may look like fun to jump in a pile of tiny grains or seeds — but it can be deadly.
He wants companies that sell grain bins and farm equipment to talk with customers about the risks of "grain engulfments." He also wants more farm families to talk about it with their children.
"It's what we perceive as being hazardous is the challenge," Blahey says.
Catie Bott, 13, and 11-year-old twins Dara and Jana were buried by canola Tuesday on their family's farm near the hamlet of Withrow in the west-central part of the province.
Their parents and neighbours worked to free them from the truck but two of the girls could not be revived. The third was taken by air ambulance to hospital in Edmonton, but she died overnight.
Blahey said four other people, including a 14-year-old boy and his grandfather in Saskatchewan, have suffocated in grain so far in 2015. The number of cases has been increasing in recent years, he added.
That's why the agency has a program that funds training volunteer firefighters in rescue techniques, he said. Earlier this year, a crew that received the training helped save a man buried up to his chin in grain on a farm in Nova Scotia.
Getting stuck in a loaded truck or grain bin is like sinking in quicksand, Blahey explained. Flowing grain moves like liquid and anything more dense sinks down.
And it happens quickly.
An average-sized man will be buried up to his chest in 15 seconds, Blahey said. The surrounding grain exerts pressure on the body, requiring at least 136 kilograms of force to lift him out.
Rescues are difficult and complex, he said. "You can't just reach out and grab him by the hand."
Once a person's face is submerged, it becomes impossible to breathe.
"If you try to draw a breath of air in, your mouth and your nose fill with grain. When you exhale, your chest gets smaller and the grain moves in against your chest. Then you can't inhale, because now you've got all this force against your body, keeping you from filling your lungs."
Canola seeds are also smaller than other crops — tiny enough to drop through the opening of a ballpoint pen, said Blahey. That means the girls would have sunk more quickly and suffocated faster.
RCMP haven't released further details about the accident and are continuing to investigate.
Blahey would like to know how long it took before the girls' parents realized they were trapped.
"I don't mean to criticize the parents of those three children that were lost but, at the same time, as caregivers we're responsible to protect them. We need to look at them as say, 'Is this safe to do? What are the hazards?'"
Roger and Bonita Bott released a statement Wednesday saying they don't regret introducing their daughters to a farm lifestyle.
Pat Alexander, reeve of Clearwater County, said the many people in the area know the Bott family and are struggling to comprehend the tragedy.
"Its going to take a long time to work our way through this."
-- by Chris Purdy in Edmonton