Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

The New Quicksand

September 1st, 2010 · 5 Comments


One of my Slate editors recently made waves with this sharp piece about the cultural demise of quicksand. The gunky stuff, so infamous for ensnaring characters in movies (including The Beastmaster’s beloved ferrets), no longer scares the youth of today. Perhaps this is because kids now realize that quicksand’s lethal potential was always overstated, and that their odds of perishing in a pit of viscous mud are positively nil.

So what should replace quicksand in the corner of the American imagination reserved for nightmares? I’d like to humbly suggest grain, specifically corn. That’s because the threat posed to humans by mountains of grain is very real—and, unfortunately, becoming more dire with each passing year:

Based upon the cases documented to date, no fewer than 38 grain entrapments occurred in 2009.

Disturbingly, the trend for this type of incident, unlike many other types of farm-related injuries and fatalities, is not improving. Between 1994 and 2002, the five-year average decreased from a record of 29.2 recorded entrapments per year to 18.8 (the lowest since 1987). Since 2002, however, the five-year average has increased steadily to 28.4 incidents per year in 2008 and 31.2 in 2009 which is an increase of nearly 66%.

As in past years, it should be noted that this summary does not reflect all grain-related entrapments, fatal or non-fatal that have occurred, due to the lack of a comprehensive reporting system and a continued reluctance on the part of some victims and employers to report partial entrapments where extrication was required but no public report was made.

Based upon the ratio of non-fatal to fatal incidents documented in Indiana over the past 30 years, which has had an aggressive surveillance program to identify these events, the total number of actual cases could be 20-30 percent greater nationwide.

So what’s causing this worrying uptick in grain entrapments? Perhaps it’s our growing thirst for corn-based ethanol:

There continues to be a direct relationship between out-of-condition grain and a greater probability of entrapment.

The domestic corn demand for ethanol has resulted in the largest build up of storage capacity across the Midwest in history. These factors will result in more corn being stored for longer periods of time than in past years and possibly an increased potential for grain entrapments unless there is a change in current work practices.

There’s a small silver lining here, which is that a lower percentage of grain entrapments are now fatal than in years past. For that, credit the advent of grain rescue tubes, one of the most underrated agricultural gadgets on the market today.

Should you wish to minimize your chances of falling victim to grain, I suggest that you heed the advice offered here. And if you do find yourself buried in corn, just do your best to relax and breathe. Do not, under any circumstances, try to eat your way out of your predicament—even the great Crazy Legs Conti, one of the most revered competitive eaters on the planet, insisted on popped corn when attempting to chew free from a sarcophagus.

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5 Comments so far ↓

  • scottstev

    Ah, death by grain. It sure freaked me out when I first saw it used for Danny Glover’s death in Witness.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @scottstev: Me too! In fact, my first impulse was to lead this post with that tale. So terrifying how Glover slowly succumbs to the unstoppable deluge of grain. And so clever of Harrison Ford to turn an Amish contraption into a lethal weapon–though the local elders probably wouldn’t approve.

  • Gramsci

    I miss the quicksand trope, especially the pseudo-Zen advice that “Any movement you make to get out will only make you sink deeper,” which seemed to accompany absolutely every quicksand episode I remember.

    Now I’m no big-city sociologist (gasp!), but I think the compressed time of our media world (see Anthony Giddens’ work on modern compression of time and space) as making quicksand just take too damn long for TV and movie viewers. Much better to have a digital time readout to mechanize the suspense IV drip, for bomb countdowns, a show where everything had to happen within 24 hours, etc.

    The whole time compression theme may also be on my mind because I saw Inception last night.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    My favorite quicksand wisdom, which provides not-so-clever instructions for escape, comes from the indomitable Homer Simpson: “First, I’ll just reach in and pull my legs out…and now I’ll pull my arms out with my face.”

    (Okay, he was technically trying to free himself from a tar pit. Same principle, I reckon.)

  • Gramsci

    I wasn’t going to be the one to say it.

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