Hanging on for his life
DeRosier survives 45 minutes in under-barn manure pit
Troy DeRosier (middle) pictured with his son, Jordan DeRosier, (left) and employee Alex Williams, fell into the 2 million gallon manure pit underneath the freestall barn March 20 on his farm Crystal Ball Dairy Farm in Osceola, Wisconsin. DeRosier was partially submerged in 9 feet of manure for 45 minutes before being rescued by Jordan and Williams. PHOTO BY JASON SCHULTE FOR DAIRY STAR
OSCEOLA, Wis. – Troy DeRosier woke up the morning of Saturday, March 20, thinking about the nice weather and the farm work he hoped to accomplish that day. He went to bed that evening with a very different outlook and a renewed appreciation for the gift of life.
Troy with his wife, Barbara, and their son, Jordan, a high school senior, operate Crystal Ball Dairy where they milk 200 cows and operate an on-farm processing plant near Osceola. The cows are housed in a freestall barn built two years ago after the DeRosiers suffered a barn fire.
The barn has slatted floors and is built above a 2-million-gallon manure pit. The pit is about 12 feet deep, and on that Saturday, Troy estimated the manure was about 9 feet deep. Troy said he was looking forward to weather that would allow them to begin the process of spring manure spreading.
On Saturday afternoon, Troy started the tractor that ran the pump to agitate the manure. While farm safety has always been in the back of his mind, Troy admitted he did some things that saved him a few steps or a couple of minutes. One of those things was having a wooden plank behind the tractor that served as a footbridge across the pit opening, allowing him easier access without having to walk around the front end of the tractor.
As Troy walked across the plank, it snapped in half, plummeting him into the rolling waves of manure agitating beneath his feet at a rate of 9,000 gallons per minute.
“The agitator output hit me as I was falling into the manure,” Troy said. “It was a massive amount of force. It threw me about 40 feet in under the barn. I was tumbling through the manure. I was about to drown. I couldn’t get air. I was being somersaulted and tossed around in the manure.”
As he was being thrown through the thick swirling mass, Troy hit a couple of support columns before finally grabbing ahold of one.
“I was finally able to orient myself which way was up and was able to get up above the manure so I could finally try to get some air,” Troy said. “It was tough just trying to hold onto the column because you have this river of manure that is still trying to knock you off the column. I didn’t even have any breath to holler for help. It was all I could do to hold on.”
As he clutched the column gasping for air, Troy knew he was in great peril, clinging to the fine line between life and death in his own personal subterranean hell, beneath the very structure where he made his living.
“I started wondering when the gas was going to overcome me,” Troy said. “I thought for sure I was dead. You just don’t survive these things.”
After an estimated 30 minutes spent treading the cold liquid manure, Troy witnessed what seemed a miracle to him.
“The pump, the agitation, actually changed direction,” Troy said. “It moved away from me on its own. It’s never done that without someone physically moving it. When it did that, it calmed the river of manure down so I could catch my breath. Then I was able to start hollering for help.”
Because of the noise of the tractor roaring at the pit opening, no one could hear Troy’s cries for help.
“No one would have thought to check anything, because it is normal for that tractor to be running the agitator with no one around,” Troy said, recalling the feeling of questioning how he possibly could be found. “It happened to be chore time, and Alex Williams, a high school employee, finally heard me when he came to bring cows up to the parlor for milking.”
When he first heard Troy yelling, Williams said he did not think much of it.
“I wasn’t sure where he was, but I just thought he was doing something with a cow somewhere,” Williams said. “Then I thought I heard him yell, ‘Help!’ I had no idea what was wrong or where he was.”
Williams said he went outside and throttled down the tractor to better hear the cries.
“When I realized where Troy was, it certainly was not what I was expecting,” he said.
Troy called for Williams to get Jordan and a ladder. When the boy turned the tractor off, the agitating manure began to still, allowing Troy some time to gather back strength for the arduous rescue that lie ahead.
When Jordan received the call for help from Williams, he said he was not certain he heard Williams correctly.
“It took me a second to comprehend what he was saying, that my dad was in the pit,” Jordan said. “That is the fastest I’ve ever run.”
The boys found a ladder in the shop and raced to the back of the barn, ready to extricate Troy from the pit.
“I remember getting there and hearing his voice and thinking, ‘Thank God he’s still alive,’” Jordan said. “There were a few moments I was definitely afraid we were going to lose him.”
By the time the boys arrived with the ladder, Troy estimates he had been in the pit for at least 45 minutes. The boys put the ladder into the hole. Troy needed to make his way back across the pit toward the hole, a distance he estimated to be about 40 feet.
“I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to swim,” Troy said. “It was hard to let go of that column, fearing I would sink back down into the manure. When I reached that ladder, it was such a feeling of relief and joy.”
In typical farmer-fashion, Troy shook off the incident and did not seek medical treatment until Monday. He said he drank lots of hot chocolate and took several hot showers to warm himself up after spending nearly an hour in 50-degree liquid manure. When he finally went to the clinic, the doctors were astounded to hear his story, especially when his lungs scanned clear of any damage. The only battle scar Troy retained from his ordeal was the aftermath of a virus he picked up from ingesting some manure.
Troy credits the design of their barn for keeping him from being overtaken by toxic gasses while in the pit.
“Our barn is tunnel-ventilated,” Troy said. “If it had been a naturally-ventilated or a cross-ventilated barn, I think the gas would have overcome me. The way our ventilation is designed, the cold air sinks down into the pit. The fans keep it down there, and it is always moving. Thank God for that design.”
When he looks back on the ordeal, Troy realizes how lucky he is to be alive. He has gained a new outlook on farm safety. A metal grate has been installed over the pit entrance to ensure nothing like this ever happens again.
“I certainly think God was involved,” Troy said. “There is no reason I survived being thrown in initially, and then when the agitation changed direction. … There is no other explanation besides God just wasn’t quite ready for me yet.”