The first funeral of a child Pastor Russell E. Saltzman conducted was for Mark, an 11-year-old killed in a farm accident in 1980. Mark was thrown from a tractor driven by his grandfather and suffocated under the load of corn they were towing. The story gets worse: Mark’s father had been killed in a farm accident just two years earlier.
Since then, Saltzman has comforted many families who have had children injured or killed in farm accidents. When asked how families cope, he says simply, “Not well!”
Between 1990 and 2008, 248 children aged 15 or younger were accidentally killed on Canadian farms. The death of a child impacts everyone: parents, siblings, grandparents, friends, even communities.
Here are three stories from families who have lived through the tragedy of either losing their child in a farm accident or helping their child cope with an injury due to a farm accident. All hope that by sharing their stories, more attention will be paid to farm safety, especially around children.
“I just lost my baby!” were the only words Sharon said to her father, Tom, when he answered the phone on October 13, 2004. He passed the phone to his wife, and Sharon was able to tell her mother that their seven-year-old granddaughter, Macala, had just been killed in a central Alberta farm accident.
Sharon was separated from her husband, and their three children were with him on that October day as he went out to stack bales. Heading out to the field, he was driving one tractor and Macala’s nine-year-old brother was driving a second loader, with Macala riding on the step. Her older sister was following along on an ATV. They never made it to the field. The loader hit a bump; Macala was thrown off the step and crushed by a wheel.
“We were devastated,” Tom says. “We drove to the hospital where she had been taken, but she had already been pronounced dead. I couldn’t even bring myself to see her body. I didn’t want to remember her the way she would have looked at the hospital.” The accident really tore the family apart.
“As hard as it has been for us,” adds Tom. “I can’t imagine what it was like for Macala’s brother, driving the loader, or her sister who saw the whole thing from the quad. I have never talked with either of them about that day for fear of hurting them.
“When an older person passes away, you can accept their death. But when it is a young person, and the death is unexpected, it is really hard. It was only the support of our minister, religious faith, and our belief that someday we will see Macala again that allowed us to accept her death.”
On September 13, 1990, Curtis, an Alberta farm boy, lost a leg in a harvesting accident.
Unbeknownst to his father, who was operating the combine, and even though he knew full well the dangers of flowing grain and augers, Curtis climbed into the combine hopper full of canola just as his father engaged the unloading auger. He became entangled almost immediately.
Call it luck, premonition, or a miracle, for some reason Curtis’s dad shut the combine down as it was unloading and found his son nearly buried in the canola with his leg trapped in the auger. With no shovel at hand, his dad used the engine air filter housing to scoop canola away so Curtis could breathe, and then be extracted. Curtis’s first words to his father, while the two were in the hopper, still haunt him: “It wasn’t your fault dad.”
Curtis recovered from his injuries and has far exceeded the limitations doctors said he would have in facing life with an artificial limb. But unfortunately, his dad has battled depression ever since the accident. Staff at the hospital tried to get both Curtis and his father to accept counselling but they refused. His dad attributes that decision to a macho mentality. “Men don’t think they need to talk about their problems and that they can handle everything themselves,” he says. “This feeling is even more prevalent with farmers who are used to doing everything on their own.”
He now deeply regrets his decision not to seek help in coping with the guilt and anger that he has tried to deal with on his own. He has two messages to share: “After an accident, get counselling. Talk to someone. More importantly, prevent accidents by making sure no one is anywhere near operating equipment. Accident prevention comes down to awareness of where everyone is and taking the time to do the job safely.”
The survival of Trevor Hoff is truly nothing less than a miracle. On July 21, 2005, the then 14-year-old Maryland farm boy had his pelvis and head crushed when the tractor he was using rolled over him as he was getting off to open a gate.
A series of incredible coincidences saved his life. A seed salesman, who happened to be a fully trained and qualified paramedic, arrived at the farm just as the accident happened. Then a medical trauma helicopter was just two miles from the farm at the time of the accident. And, remarkably, with no other traumas at Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins Hospital, the entire emergency surgical staff could attend to Trevor right away.
His mother, a nurse, had the knowledge to work with the doctors and push for surgical intervention, which likely saved his life and allowed him to recover beyond even the most optimistic expectations.
Today, Trevor is the national youth safety spokesman for Farm Safety 4 Just Kids, a non-profit organization based in Iowa, which serves the United States and Canada. The organization provides resources and training to individuals and communities to conduct farm safety awareness and education programs. Trevor has travelled across the eastern U.S. telling of his near death experience (part of his presentation is on YouTube — a must-see for anyone living, working, or visiting a farm).
“While farm accidents often divide families, my accident brought our family closer together,” says Trevor. “Sure, it put grey hairs on both mom and dad, and mom worries more about everything I do — probably more so now at 21 than when I was 14. But all of us know farming is a dangerous business and accidents do happen. Farmers are always in a rush. Farmers need to slow down and take time to think. That is what I tell the groups I speak to and my parents support me fully in getting this message out,” says Trevor.
“Many farmers who have had an accident try to hide the story,” he says. “They seem to think admitting the accident makes them less of a farmer. I, too, was ashamed in the beginning, but talking about the accident has helped me get through it.
“There is no doubt in my mind that I should be dead,” adds Trevor. “I believe I was kept in this world for something, and that is farm safety. And if by talking about farm safety and my experience I save one life; if I save one kid from going through what I went through, it will be worth it.”