NPR and the Center for Public Integrity have teamed up to produce an excellent and chilling series of stories about workers suffocated to death in grain bins — a major and well-known hazard in agriculture. Howard Berkes and Jim Morris introduce the series with the story of 14-year-old Wyatt Whitebread and 19-year-old Alex Pacas, who were killed on the job in Mount Carroll, Illinois:

… on a stifling hot day in July 2010, Whitebread joined his buddies Alex Pacas, 19, and Will Piper, 20, at the Haasbach LLC grain storage complex. Piper had begun working there the week before, and it was Pacas’ second day on the job.

The boys carried shovels and picks as they climbed a ladder four stories to the top of the grain bin, which was twice as wide and half-filled with 250,000 bushels of wet and crusty corn. Their job was to “walk down the grain,” or break up the kernels that clung to the walls and clogged the drainage hole at the bottom of the bin.

The work went well at first, with the boys shoveling corn toward a cone-shaped hole at the center of the bin. But around 9:45 a.m., Whitebread began sinking in the corn. He was sucked under in minutes and disappeared. Pacas and Piper also began to sink and desperately struggled to stay on the surface.

Six horrific hours later, only Piper was carried out alive.

“This is one of the most egregious cases we’ve seen in a long time,” says John Newquist, a recently retired assistant regional administrator of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in Chicago.

“You’ve got the worst of the worst cases,” Newquist adds, noting that one of the victims was too young to legally work in the bin. “The one kid who survived actually saw his friends die. That’s just outrageous.”

When amassed in a grain bin, corn kernels can act like quicksand. In 2010 alone, 26 people died in grain entrapments. Will Piper could easily have been another of the casualties; he survived thanks to rescuers’ quick response, after a harrowing ordeal:

Piper is tall and lean and had a few inches on Pacas, so he didn’t sink as deeply. Falling corn from above made it worse, gathering around Pacas’ neck and chin. Piper remembers his friend screaming that he didn’t want to die.

“One last chunk of corn came flowing down and went around his face, and I still had one arm free,” Piper remembers, punctuating the tale with quiet sighs. “And I tried to sweep it away from his face as much as I could, and eventually there was just too much.”

Soon, only Pacas’ scalp and hand were visible above the grain.

“And his hand stopped moving,” Piper continues. “And the corn was up to my chin at that point.”

… Pacas’ lifeless body was just under the corn and so close to Piper that rescuers couldn’t fit a single plastic grain rescue tube around him. They pieced two tubes together, jammed the oversized tube into the corn and around both boys, and used grain vacuums to suck out the corn inside the tube.

Vacuuming the corn was a very slow process, especially because it was wet and crusty. “It was just like working in concrete,” one of the rescuers later told Newcomb.

It took an hour to extract enough corn from the tube to uncover Pacas’ face. Piper was trapped for a couple more hours, as he remembers it, almost face to face with his dead friend.

A few of the rescuers succumbed to the heat, and the call went out for additional ambulances. “They were dealing with a heat index of about 114 degrees that day,” Newcomb says. “You’re inside a metal can with the sun shining on it.”

When Pacas’ body was finally exposed, Piper was told to lean in and hug him so rescuers could vacuum out the corn behind Piper. Even when the corn was down to his waist, rescuers couldn’t free him. Newcomb says victims buried that deep have had legs broken and arms pulled from their sockets during rescue attempts.

“So they had to keep vacuuming,” Piper says. He continued to hug his lifeless friend as rescuers extracted the corn. In all, it was six hours before Piper was carried out through a triangular hole cut into the side of the bin. He was flown by helicopter to a hospital.

This grain bin series addresses the penalties companies face after workers are killed in grain bins. The Center for Public Integrity and NPR studied the Occupational Safety and Health Administration penalties and found most are reduced dramatically — even though OSHA maximum penalties are already bizarrely low compared fines from other agencies, like EPA. Morris and Berkes explain:

The OSHA investigation into the Mt. Carroll accident began the evening of July 28 and culminated not quite six months later with the issuance of three citations alleging 25 violations by [facility owner] Haasbach, including failing to train the four young workers in Bin No. 9 in “safe work practices” and failing to turn off the conveyor under the bin.

Twelve violations were classified as willful, suggesting Haasbach either disregarded or was “plainly indifferent” to the law. An internal OSHA document obtained by the Center and NPR offered justification for the willful violations: The people in charge of Haasbach had worked around grain for 30-plus years, the document says, and had heard about grain entrapments.

All told, OSHA wanted Haasbach to pay $555,000 in penalties.As often happens, the final amount was whittled down.

A Center-NPR analysis of OSHA data shows that 179 people died in grain entrapments at commercial facilities — bins, rail cars, etc. — from 1984 through 2012. The fines initially proposed in these cases totaled $9.2 million but were cut to $3.8 million, a reduction of 59 percent. Given that some of these cases are still open, the fines could drop lower still.

The five largest fines, which ranged from $530,000 to $1.6 million, were cut by 50 to 97 percent.

Haasbach wound up paying $200,000 for the violations in Mt. Carroll, a 64-percent discount.

It’s hardly surprising that this angered Wyatt Whitebread’s parents:

In an interview at their home, Wyatt Whitebread’s parents spoke of their lingering disquiet. They have brought a wrongful-death lawsuit against the principals of Haasbach and the company that leased the facility at the time of the accident, Consolidated Grain and Barge Co.

“I guess I’m vengeful,” said Gary Whitebread, a large-animal veterinarian. “I want [the defendants’] life to be affected like mine. I want them not to be able to go about their daily business like nothing happened.”

“You know, if nothing happens of this, then boys that age are expendable,” said Carla Whitebread, a high school Spanish teacher. “There’s no recourse for it. It didn’t hurt the company at all. And if nothing else happens, then why not hire 14-, 15, 16-year-old boys and just put them in there … what’s the difference? It’s not going to cost you anything.”

NPR and the Center compiled reports of the nearly 180 worker deaths from grain-related entrapments since 1984; you can view them by state or browse through the disturbing event summaries. The entire “Buried in Grain” series is well worth reading — and bookmarking for those times when anyone tells you OSHA is being too hard on businesses.