Rescue drew on skills of many
The Thursday evening rescue of Feely Elevator manager Mark Malecha will likely go down in Farmington's history books as one of greatest success stories told by local fire fighters and police officers.
Malecha was pulled to safety at 7:39 p.m. Thursday, after spending the day trapped in a 45- to 50-foot deep silo at the Farmington elevator.
The accident was reported at 11:17 a.m. Thursday. Malecha was in the process of filling a semi trailer with corn. He went down into the silo to try to loosen a clog inside. The corn below him shifted, and covered Malecha nearly to his neck, pinning him against the silo's south wall.
The elevator is across the street from Farmington City Hall, and the truck driver ran across the street and asked city employee Rob Boerboom to call 911. Emergency personnel were on the scene within minutes.
According to police chief Brian Lindquist, Farmington police, firefighters and ambulance crews were the first to arrive. Farmington fire/rescue personnel scaled the side of the silo, entering through the trap door on top. Finding that Malecha was about 8 to 10 feet from the bottom of the silo and not wearing a safety harness, local rescue workers decided they would need help.
Local emergency workers called the Dakota County Special Operations Team. Farmington fire chief Tim Pietsch said the SOT has specific training in situations where the surroundings may collapse on a victim. In this case, that meant keeping the corn from shifting more and completely burying Malecha.
Farmington fire marshal John Powers notified the railroad company of the situation and asked that all rail travel through downtown Farmington be suspended until the rescue attempt was complete. Powers worried the vibrations from a passing train could cause the corn to shift more and suffocate Malecha. As many as 33 trains were affected by the closure.
A lot of patience
It was an afternoon of hurry up and wait, as more and more rescue personnel arrived in the parking lot of city hall. The Dakota County SOT devised a plan that included cutting two holes into the silo -- one at the top to lower rescue personnel and supplies into the corn and a second on the south side of the silo so firefighters could dump buckets of corn out the side as they dug the frozen kernels from around Malecha by hand.
Rescue crews worked all day under intermittent snowfall. As sunset came light towers went up to illuminate the scene.
The Dakota County SOT is part of a larger special operations team, called Minnesota Task Force One, which includes specially trained rescuers from Edina and Minneapolis. They, too, joined the scene as the day progressed, bringing along equipment and personnel to assist in the rescue.
As part of the plan, medics were lowered into the silo to administer warm fluids to Malecha. The semi-frozen corn had the consistency of partially formed concrete and was quite cold, Lindquist said. Medics also administered doses of sodium bicarbonate to fight a condition known as crush syndrome, which can be fatal to victims who are pinned for long periods of time.
Before the corn could be dumped out, SOT members built a kind of plywood box around Malecha. Sending boards in one by one, rescuers inside the silo barricaded Malecha from the corn around him.
Once that was in place, they set to scooping out the corn. Most of the corn was removed bucket by bucket. Vacuum trucks from Farmington and Lakeville public works departments hauled away the excess corn. By late afternoon, the corn had been lowered to Malecha's waist.
As soon as rescue workers were confident they could safely pull Malecha out, a body harness was attached. With Farmington firefighters working the ropes below, Malecha was slowly, carefully pulled through the opening at the top of the silo.
Covered with corn dust, Malecha was lowered to the ground around 7:30 p.m. While suspended in air, he moved his hands and feet.
Meanwhile, a number of his family members had gathered next to the waiting ALF ambulance. Malecha was placed on a gurney and wheeled to the ambulance.
Before being placed inside, he gave the surrounding crowd a simple thumbs up. A few onlookers started to clap and cheer.
Allina Medical Transportation associate medical director Dr. Paul Satterlee was on board the ambulance, waiting to administer immediate care to Malecha while en route to Hennepin County Medical Center. Within hours of his rescue, Malecha was in recovery. He was released the next day and reportedly returned to work Monday.
Malecha has been the manager at Feely Elevator since November, 2006.
At press time, no estimate had been released to indicate how much the day's rescue activity would cost. However, Powers said much of the assistance from other communities -- Lakeville, Hastings, Rosemount -- is covered under joint powers agreements. The deal allows cities to receive up to eight hours of assistance from each individual on the scene before the community receiving the help is charged.
Farmington also may not see much of a bill from the special operations teams. As a member to the Dakota County SOT, Farmington annually pays $2,000 to be affiliated with that group. Much of the funding for Task Force One comes through state money and grants.
There will be some charges to deal with though. Mostly, that will be the cost for the estimated 52 Farmington firefighters, police and public works employees who responded.
Powers said the city will also be responsible to pay for "expendable" items used in the rescue, like the boards used to build the barricade around Malecha, pulleys that were lost or damaged and so on. He does not have a cost for those items at this time.
Just about everyone on hand that day was running high on adrenaline. Looking back at the rescue, Pietsch calls the whole thing "mind-boggling."
It's an exercise no local law enforcement or firefighters have ever trained for. Having the extra resources available, though, and watching all of those segments come together to achieve the same goal -- saving a man's life -- was rewarding.
"It's not all about the big picture," Lindquist said Monday. "It's the intricate details that could get overlooked. Those guys (SOT members) did the bulk of the work, but I was glad to help."