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Grain bin rescue secures hero status

Arnie Eben stood atop the sea of golden kernels. He shifted his weight, determining whether the 30,000 bushels of corn would sustain him or suck him into its depths.

Grains scattered beneath his feet. A rope cinched around his waist. A scanner squawked instructions.

And a man buried neck-deep in the grain pile pleaded for help.

In that moment, Ebeh felt none of the emotions depicted in action movies — no sudden surge of bravery, no explosion of courage, no rush of gallantry that would lead to rash decisions.

All the George Fire Department chief experienced was a sense of duty.

"You know this is the time to do what you were trained to do," he said.

The training paid off.

After nearly four hours, Eben and about 30 other members of the George Fire Department and the George Emergency Medical Services extricated then-Sheldon resident Tracy Hardin from a grain bin.

On that day last May, the act was necessary.

Today, it is extraordinary, according to the Siouxland Area Chapter of the American Red Cross, who announced this week that the agencies combined to win its "Siouxland Heroes" competition in the "Fire-Rescue" category.

"This rescue showed so many volunteers working together, and it really showcases teamwork for a particular cause, and in this case, it was saving a life," said Beth Trejo, public relations and event coordinator for the Red Cross.

GEMS chief Eugene Modder plans to attend the awards ceremony March 18 with other group members but feels his role deserves no more attention than any of the other 83 calls the group responded to during 2007.

"We didn't do it to get the attention," Modder said. We do it because it's what we like to do. We do it because it's what we're supposed to do."

The plaque will hang in the departments' building.

However, another prize resulted from the rescue.

Since the May 17 incident, Modder and Eben have spoken to several organizations, raising awareness about grain bin dangers, and local businesses responded by donating funds and buying a Liberty Rescue Tube — a device designed especially for grain bin disasters.

Rescuers used no such special equipment to rescue Hardin, who has since moved from the area.

At about 4 p.m., Hardin was unloading a 50,000-bushel bin owned by the George Elevator Co. Hardin noticed a problem with the auger and entered the bin to work on the equipment while it was still running.

It only took seconds. The corn shifted, and the surface gave way, forming a funnel that sucked Hardin down. Another driver saw Hardin trapped in the grain and called 911.

The George volunteers arrived on scene to find Hardin buried up to his shoulders. Workers lowered themselves into the bin. Some, like Eben, were secured by ropes tied around their stomachs. Others wore emergency harnesses.

Once inside, rescuers placed plywood strips around Hardin's head, blocking the corn from flowing toward his face. Slowly and carefully, so as to not disturb the grain pile too much, workers scooped the corn out and secured Hardin with a rope so he could not sink further. Then they started cutting holes in the side of the bin, allowing more than 10,000 bushels to spill from the container and away from Hardin.

"It was an emotional time, seeing his eyes and having him look at you — on any call, there's that look, where they're hoping you can help. It's a tough feeling to explain," Modder said.

Eben experienced the same sentiments. After rescuers lowered Hardin through a hole cut in the grain bin, he joined Modder at a station set up for the workers. Gulping water and having their vitals checked, the men started talking about what just happened.

"To be honest with you, we were real close to tears," Eben said. "Every movement we made was dangerous. And we were in there for three and a half hours, but it felt more like 24. You are exhausted and shot and drained — emotionally and physically, and then it's done, and you saved a life, and it's indescribable. I can't put it into words. Even for days and weeks afterward, none of us involved even let it cross our minds that we were heroes."