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Turning Grain Bin Tragedy Into Life-Saving Message

As Mandy Hammes recounts the death of her father-in-law, the voice of a certified agriculture health nurse comes through – each detail aimed at imparting a potentially life-saving lesson.

It was January 5, 2012. Her father-in-law, John Hammes, was alone on his farm in Richland, Iowa, while his family traveled.  As his day began, John noticed the vacuum in his grain bin was stuck to the floor. He was 60 at the time and had been inside plenty of grain bins. He decided not to wait for the hired hand to arrive and stand sentry. At 5:30 a.m., he went inside. This time, he didn’t make it out alive.  

farm safety tipsRescuers arrived within minutes, working valiantly to pull John from the silo. But the fire department, like most, didn’t have equipment designed specifically for grain bin entrapments. Its volunteer firefighters (again, like most and through no one’s fault) had never been trained in grain bin rescues. And John probably didn’t know to cover his mouth and nose with his shirt to keep his airways clear and increase his chance of survival. 

Mandy knows the story of her father-in-law’s death is an attention grabber. But she wants more. She wants rescuers and farmers to take the steps necessary to prevent other families – maybe their own families – from experiencing the pain that the Hammes have suffered.

So she offers a picture. Almost immediately, her voice changes from that of an educator and nurse to that of a grieving daughter-in-law. It’s of her middle son and John. Zach and John were buddies, Mandy says. Grandpa had bad knees and Zach was his eager helper. People around town were familiar with the sight of Zach and Grandpa working together. But in this photo, only Zach can be seen. He’s crying. Mandy explains: That’s John’s grave, so fresh the headstone hadn’t been placed.

Once people can see our story, see the ripple effect in our family, they can see the importance of grain bin safety, Mandy says.

Mandy told the family’s story for the first time a month after John’s death. It hasn’t gotten any easier, any less painful to tell. Still, she shares it as often and with as many people as she can. And for Grain Bin Safety Week, we wanted to share it too, in the hope of furthering Mandy’s mission to properly equip and train fire departments and to give producers the knowledge they need to increase their chances of survival in the event of an entrapment. 

Mandy leaves farmers with one last impression of her family, one that she hopes they take with them the next time they need to climb into a grain bin: Every day that her husband, A.J., walks across the threshold of the family home, she and her three children feel a sense of relief. He is home safely.

“We know all too well the dangers of farming,” she says.

Zach at Grave Site

Zach Hammes at his grandfather’s grave.
Courtesy of Mandy Hammes

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