(Jasper County, IN) - Questions still remain on how a 30-year old man working on a Northwest Indiana 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 November 11th. Van Baren was from Wheatfield, Indiana.
Jasper County Coroner Andrew Boersma said the victim 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 cow feces and urine, 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. For some reason, Boersma said the machine rolled toward the pit at some point after the co-worker left to retrieve something. The machine was reportedly resting on a slope on a frosty morning.
Boersma said Van Baren was last seen at the edge of the pit but his location at the time of his leg being severed and exactly how it happened were not known since there were no witnesses. He said Van Baren more than likely bled to death in less than 60 seconds. There was no fluid discovered in his lungs during an autopsy.
“He didn’t drown,” Boersma said.
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 and recover the body when it was found at the bottom of the pit about four hours later, roughly 25 feet away from the edge of the approximately one million gallon lagoon. The farm 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 rubber lined pit is roughly 100 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 and rescue a victim.
Field said swimming is possible in the mixture, which is thicker than water, but the problem is exhaustion from the walls of pits being steep and are typically too high above the surface 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.