Erika Hayasaki | December 2014 | 2,554 words (10 minutes)

Four years ago, Erika Hayasaki learned about the death of two young men in a corn grain bin accident in the Midwest. Over the next two years, while pregnant and later with her then-six-month-year-old daughter and husband in tow, she left her life in Los Angeles to visit Mount Carroll, Illinois, population 1,700, to capture the story. Her interest, however, wasn’t so much in rehashing the deaths of the two young men, but in telling the story of the survivor, Will Piper, who nearly died trying to save his friends from the deadly pull of the grain bin, and whose life took a surprising turn after the accident. The following is an excerpt from Hayasaki’s story, Drowned By Corn, which describes the lives of the young workers before the accident.

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The sky showed its nerve that July in 2010 in Mount Carroll, Illinois, a blip of a town, home to 1,700, 20 miles east of the Mississippi River and Iowa border. For 33 hours, 10 inches of rain fell in heaves, pushing the Plum and Waukarusa rivers to spill over, swallowing hundreds of acres of corn and soybean fields. The town’s only dugout and baseball diamonds disappeared. The interstate overpass and railroad tracks were engulfed. When the rain finally dissipated, cars and swing sets sat submerged in chin-high water. Parts of Mount Carroll had become a Hennessey-colored lake, with overturned train cars and pieces of fences clinking about like ice cubes. Residents steered motorboats and canoes through washed-out neighborhoods. The chief of police sailed to work. A live cow caught in the current bobbed in the water like a buoy.

But the storm itself did not take any lives, and within a few days its potential for peril had already been lost on some. To Will Piper and Alex “Paco” Pacas, both 19, the swollen rivers dared them to jump from bridges and to ride rubber inner tubes wherever the fast-rushing currents might take them. In the Waukarusa, which snaked behind Will’s parents’ house, Paco lost control and went flying downstream, slamming into a tree limb, and tumbling off his tube. Will jumped in after him, and the two made it to dry ground. They shared a good laugh over the feat. It was not the first time Will had saved his best friend. Once, they got the idea to swim the Mississippi River. Paco started to struggle halfway out. Will had to swim with his arms around him, helping Paco to land.

Living in Mount Carroll was enough to motivate teenagers like them to seek out adventure. Two paved main double-lane roads led in and out of the town—Route 78 and Route 64—lifelines that linked small-towners to bigger cities, like Clinton, Freeport, Rockford, and Chicago. Mount Carroll had one grocery store. The closest mall was an hour-and-a-half drive away. To get to a Walmart, it took forty-five minutes. If Will and Paco wanted to see a movie in a theater, or take their prom dates to a fancy restaurant, they had to plan on traveling the same forty-five minutes, driving behind the semis sometimes lugging oversized tractors; past the milk trucks; through millions of acres of green, beige, and straw-colored land; past the gutted red barns, the spinning windmills, the horses with tails swatting flies; past the signs advertising red or gold mulch for sale, or billboards reading BEEF. IT’S WHAT’S FOR DINNER, and the churches with letter boards out front with messages like THE KEY TO HEAVEN WAS HUNG ON A NAIL.

Winter would take hold, and with the snowflakes came fables passed down by grandmothers around town of “angels shaking their feathers from the heavens.” Will and Paco took to the remote gravel back roads surrounded by frozen farm fields. That was where they drove their cars like they were stolen, going seventy-five miles an hour on black ice around corners, sometimes balancing on two wheels. Paco drove his family’s high-top twelve-seater. They called it the Paco Van. Fishtailing was an adrenaline rush. In one spot of town, where the railroad tracks sloped about ten feet on both sides, Will and Paco took turns flying over that peak at fifty miles an hour. They got a nice pop up, bottoming out on impact. Once, Paco took the incline at seventy miles, skidding off the road with sparks flying, landing in a snowy ditch.

On summer nights, the guys would return to those back roads with a carton full of mortars—military-inspired fireworks that shot from tubes into the air, before exploding in the sky. With Busch Light on their breath, their friend Jacob “Bump” Bumphrey steered the wheel one night, as Will and Paco lay sprawled on their backs in the bed of the pickup, staring at the stars, taking turns setting the wicks on fire, and shoving them through the tubes. Together, they waited for the ka-boom. With each detonation, Paco squealed like a child at the confetti of sparkles.

Bump got the idea to videotape through the back window. He told his girlfriend, Kelcy, to take the steering wheel. Will let off the next mortar. It erupted, and they all cheered. Seconds later, Will felt the truck swerve, banging and thrashing over rocks and dirt. He struggled to sit up, craning his neck just far enough to see the side of the road. The truck was heading toward a ditch.

“Kelcy!” Will screamed.

She swerved abruptly and jerked the truck back onto the road.

Will looked over at Paco, still flat on his back.

“Dude!” Will told him. “We just almost died.”

Paco looked slightly surprised. “Whoa.”

Death was a flirt, and Will and Paco teased it right back together.

The two had met freshman year at West Carroll High, when the teens from the regional towns of Mount Carroll, Thomson, and Savanna merged on one big campus for the first time. Most of the students had been in small schools with the same kids they had grown up with, but that year they walked into a high school full of strangers, and for the first two weeks, all the kids segregated by towns, especially at lunch. Each town had its own territory: The Savanna tables. The Thomson tables. The Mount Carroll tables.

Paco didn’t belong to a table. His mother was a teacher, and he had been home-schooled by her until then. When Will walked into the cafeteria, he noticed the half-Salvadoran, half-white kid sitting by himself. Paco had thick dark eyebrows and wore his short-cropped hair combed over his forehead.

Will had reddish-blond hair that matched his eyebrows and lashes, and blue-gray eyes. He was over six feet tall, long, and thin-muscled, not particularly graceful. All the clusters of town cliques seemed dumb to him. Why did everyone have to stick to their own? Screw it, Will had told himself that day. He would make his own clique. He struck up a conversation with the new kid. The two boys realized they both had band for their fifth-hour class. Will played trombone. Paco played the trumpet and bass guitar. They walked to band together.

“That was it,” as Will would tell the story years later. “Best friends ever since.”

Will on a childhood trip to Haiti with a local volunteer group. Courtesy of the Piper family
Will on a childhood trip to Haiti with a local volunteer group. Courtesy of the Piper family

Will tended to love people hard. Girls, mostly, but he loved his guy friends too. He was drawn to people with stories, particularly people who had soldiered through hardships, and when he devoted himself, his loyalty was unwavering. His mom had taken him to Haiti with a local church group on a school-building mission. Just 14 at the time, Will felt at ease, almost at home, as if he had been destined to find Haiti all along. He passed up bunking with the other American church members in a designated building, choosing instead to make his bedding alongside the locals in their dirt-floor dwellings with tin roofs. Will didn’t feel pity for the Haitian people. Instead, he felt a deep respect for all they had endured and how they didn’t need the luxuries that America took for granted to be happy.

It was this part of him that respected Paco’s resilience too. The oldest of seven siblings, Paco had recently become the man of his house, after his father was sent to jail. Town folks knew that the Pacas family didn’t have much money, especially with a single mother in charge of all those kids alone. Their two-story house on Main Street, with its four bedrooms upstairs and large basement that Paco used as his crash pad and buddy hangout, was soon going to be foreclosed upon. To help his family, Paco knew he needed to work.

Will and Paco graduated from high school in 2009 and saw their futures as endless and intertwined, beyond the borders of Mount Carroll. Will, in particular, had long entertained the idea of leaving this town, in which he had been born, behind forever. He had worked just about every minimum-wage job in the area: at the Dairy Queen, at a factory, and cutting trees.

Will had recently returned from spending nine months in a technical school in Minnesota, where he learned how to repair musical instruments. But he did not complete all of his course work to earn his diploma. He figured he could repair instruments without the degree, as long as he had learned the skills. His drug and alcohol use did not make his motivation to graduate any better. Will had been drinking beer or liquor about three times a week since he was 18, and smoking marijuana almost on a daily basis by the time he graduated from high school. In Minnesota he began abusing Adderall, a drug prescribed to treat attention deficit disorder, which he had been diagnosed with as a child. Adderall was an “upper,” or stimulant, that helped him focus and stay awake. With enough of it, he could skip sleep for three or four days at a time. Sometimes, he would smoke marijuana to come down from the Adderall high. Will returned home with no diploma and no real job prospects.

It took more than a barrel of motivation to get out of Mount Carroll. The town was the kind of place that kept a leg hold on you. The economic crisis had hit the region hard, and lately it felt as if everyone was on the edge of losing their jobs, or their farms, or their family businesses. With so few options, many hovered between barely making it and not making it at all. The leg hold tightened as bills piled up and family debts mounted. By the time boys grew into men in Mount Carroll, reality set in. As much as they might have dreamed of one day pulling themselves out of this town, they didn’t even have the life tools or opportunities to figure out how. It was easier to score a dime bag, or sell one, than to land a job interview.

So it felt like a lucky break when a kindly neighbor, Matt Schaffner, who managed a grain-storage facility in town, mentioned that he might be able to offer Will some part-time temporary work.

Grain bins had been as much a part of the backdrop of Will’s life in Mount Carroll as the stalks of corn that grew to twice his height before the harvest season. For miles upon miles, grain bins pockmarked the landscape, some wide as sheds, others stadium-large. Some called them silos. On gray days, their stainless-steel and aluminum-alloy sides blended into the sky. On sunny days, the ribs of the bins gleamed like jewel facets. Every October, cornhusks were stripped, their kernels removed from each ear and sent to the bins for storage. Altogether, these cylindrical towers protruding across the Illinois landscape stored nearly two billion bushels of shelled corn—a nation’s lifeblood within their giant silver bellies.

“Hell yeah,” Will said to Matt, of course he’d take the job.

Alex “Paco” Pacas. Courtesy of the Pacas family
Alex “Paco” Pacas. Courtesy of the Pacas family

He started on July 20, 2010, three days before the rainstorms battered Mount Carroll. The grain-storage facility was located on Mill Road, across the street from the Star Bright Car Wash and the Route 64 gas station with its Land of Oz convenience store, Subway sandwich shop, and 24-hour live-bait vending machine. Will soon learned that Matt still needed another laborer. He told him he knew someone else who needed a job. His name was Alex. Will called him Paco.

Eight days later, Will drove both of them to the bins. It was Paco’s second day of work. Will had smoked some weed the night before, like he usually did before falling asleep. By 7 a.m., he was awake and sober.

They headed to the control room to get instructions for the day. They had been hired to load trucks, clean the bins, and sweep the corn. They would also be responsible for “walking down the grain” to keep it from caking along the bin walls, which involved loosening the chunks of corn that choked up a sump hole by hitting the clumps with pickaxes or shovels or by kicking it with their boots. Today, they would be working inside of Bin Number 9.

Matt’s dimple-cheeked 15-year-old daughter, M.J., also worked at the bins, but she stuck mostly to loading the semitrucks, which pulled into the facility daily. She was one of several workers who helped fill up each truck with 80,000 pounds of corn, to be shipped by barge across the Mississippi River.

Each day, M.J. would stand on a platform controlling a pulley system, opening a hopper that would dump in corn until the truck was full. She would close the pulley system and use hand signals to motion to the truck driver to continue on into the “scale house,” a room across from Bin Number 9, with a computer monitor. Another employee would record the truck’s weight. If the truck exceeded 80,000 pounds, workers would unload corn until it hit the right weight. If it was underweight, M.J. would signal to the driver to back up, and she would open the hopper again to fill it with more corn. Other workers had nicknamed M.J. The Beast, because she could operate the machinery and keep things running smoothly and efficiently, despite being so young and small.

M.J. had gone into a bin once, about a month earlier, to walk down the grain like Will and Paco would. It was Bin Number 9. Her father had warned her beforehand to be careful, and to stay away from the corn near the center sump hole. A conveyor belt below carried the kernels out the hole, creating a vacuum-like pressure in the bin. It formed a cone in the corn as it was sucked down. Get caught in the funnel and the moving grain could take her, her dad told her, like quicksand. If she got stuck, she might not come out.

M.J had not entirely understood what he meant until that day she walked down the grain herself in late June. She didn’t like it. The fitful kernels made her uneasy, the way they slithered toward the hole with such force. She told her dad she did not want to do it again. That was the first and last time M.J. walked down the corn.

Excerpted from Drowned by Corn.

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Erika Hayasaki is assistant professor of Literary Journalism at UC Irvine and a journalist who writes about youth, education, health, science, culture, crime, death and urban affairs. She is a former New York-based national correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, where she spent nine years covering breaking news and writing feature stories. She is the author of The Death Class: A True Story About Life (Simon & Schuster 2014), Drowned by Corn (Kindle Single, 2014) and Dead or Alive ​(Kindle Single, 2012). She has published more than 900 articles in the Los Angeles Times and various other newspapers, and her writing has also appeared in The Atlantic, Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, Time, Los Angeles magazine and others.