By Stan Maddux
FAIR OAKS, Ind. – Questions remain on how a 30-year-old Indiana man working on a dairy farm wound up in a manure pit and died.
The body of Gordon Van Baren was recovered from the 14-foot-deep lagoon about four hours after he disappeared in the muck at Windy Ridge Dairy in Fair Oaks on Nov. 11.
Jasper County Coroner Andrew Boersma said the victim from nearby Wheatfield bled to death when one of his legs was shattered and severed below the knee cap. His body was recovered from the bottom of the pit about 25 feet from the edge of the lagoon where he was last seen.
Boersma said a machine on four wheels equipped with a boom was being used to lower an agitator into the pit. Agitators stir up the water to keep solids in the liquid from settling to the bottom. They also keep the mixture of feces and urine from cows, along with the water, mixed well enough to be pumped into tanks and applied as fertilizer in the fields.
According to authorities, Van Baren was doing the job with a co-worker. Boersma said, for some reason, the machine that was resting on a slope on a frosty morning rolled toward the pit at some point after the co-worker left to retrieve something. Boersma said there were no known witnesses. He said Van Baren more than likely bled to death in less than 60 seconds.
The coroner said Van Baren didn’t drown as there was no fluid discovered in his lungs during an autopsy. Boersma would not speculate if the amputation resulted from him being pinned between the machine and agitator.
Jasper County Sheriff Patrick Williamson said the police side of the investigation also provided no further answers. “Nobody actually saw him go under, but they just knew he wasn’t there anymore,” he said.
Authorities said a boat and treble hook were used to try to recover the body when it was found about four hours later at the bottom of the approximately one-million-gallon lagoon.
The farm in the northwest part of the state has a few thousand or more head of dairy cattle.
According to authorities, the pit was in the process of being pumped out when the body was located. Williamson said the pit with a rubber liner is roughly100 to 200 feet long and 50 to 100 feet wide.
Bill Field, a farm safety expert at Purdue University, said manure pit deaths are not uncommon and happen more often on dairy farms than hog operations judging from data gathered nationwide since 1980.
He said a lot of fatalities result from heavy machinery scraping manure from the ground operating too close to the edge and falling into the pits.
Field said the walls of manure pits often run straight to the bottom and submerged heavy equipment operators often don’t have enough time to free themselves from the safety devices on the machines to keep from drowning.
He said some of the other manure pit deaths happen when people jump in to try to rescue a victim.
Field said swimming is possible in the mixture thicker than water, but the problem is exhaustion from the walls of pits being steep and too high above the surface, typically, to scale. “There’s just no way you’re going to climb up out of it,” he said.
Field said robots are used in some parts of Europe to scrape manure into pits.
“If something goes in there, it’s going to be the robot but the robots are trained. It’s programmed not to go to a certain point,” he said.