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Bill Field
GOOD ADVICE: Bill Field, Purdue Extension ag safety specialist, says the best policy is to stay out of a building after a fire or gas leak, and call 911 for help.

Fatal farm explosion reinforces safety lessons

Purdue Extension specialist reminds people to think about their safety first.

By Stan Maddux          

A 22-year-old man killed while trying to rescue calves from a northern Indiana dairy farm explosion and fire illustrates why life-saving efforts should be left strictly to the experts. That’s according to Bill Field, Extension ag safety specialist at Purdue University.

Field says the urge to save a life can be great, but the first response should always be calling 911. He adds that people rushing into a dangerous situation too many times become victims themselves.

“It’s one thing to have the calves die,” Field says. “It’s another to have a person die trying to save them.”

On Sept. 16, David Fajardo was cleaning a newborn calf pen at Homestead Dairy when he backed a skid loader into a propane tank, says Plymouth Fire Chief Rodney Miller. Fajardo left the barn but returned to try and rescue calves when gas leaking from the tank exploded.

Jill Houin, calf manager at the 4,900-head dairy, called his efforts heroic but ill-advised. “If we can get them out, great,” she says. “But in that situation, he should have just run.”

Houin says 27 of the 50 calves inside the barn died. Some survivors were badly burned. Propane is used to heat water for automatic feeders distributing milk to the calves.

“Our workers knew him for a really long time,” she says. “He was a good kid.”

Be aware

Field says firefighters know the potential dangers and how to reduce the risk in rescue situations. Civilians, though, often don’t. They can easily step in, not realizing that in a gas leak, for example, there could be a hidden ignition source.

Other times they’re not aware just how quickly they can be overcome by smoke and chemicals such as anhydrous ammonia. “All of those are no match for a person unprotected, and almost no farmer is prepared to go in there and provide assistance without putting themselves at very high risk of injury or death,” Field says. Especially tragic are deaths resulting from people going after prized possessions, such as an antique car or tractor.

Skid loaders themselves pose a danger because their design restricts operators from seeing what’s behind them, which may or may not have been a factor in this case, Field says. People have also died from being hit or run over by skid loaders.

Operators should make sure people are kept away from where they’re working and survey the area for any objects they could potentially back into.

Field adds, “It’s amazing how many people have backed into telephone poles. Backed into trucks. Run over people. The guy in the cab sitting in the seat has no idea what’s behind him.”

About half of the calf pen was destroyed from the explosion and fire. Houin says a fireball also melted curtains and burned some hay in another barn next to it, but flames were contained without much, if any, damage to that structure.

Homestead Dairy was started with just nine cows by Elmer and Lena Houin. By 1979, the farm grew to 110 head, eventually reaching 3,000 head before a 2017 expansion added another 1,900 milking cows. The latest expansion included construction of a 400,000-square-foot robotic milking facility.

Houin says all milk from the dairy is sold under the Great Value brand at Walmart.

Maddux writes from South Bend, Ind.

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