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Silo rescue: Trapped for 8 hours in cold, dark place

CARMEL, Ind. (WISH) — A cloud of dust and then a dust-covered hard hat emerged from an 18-by-18-feet hole in the top of an asphalt silo.

Seconds later, an even more dust-covered Billy Joe Walls’ right arm reached for freedom.

This was how the 34-year-old’s first day on a job ended: 7-1/2 hours trapped in a cold, dark silo, unable to move, barely able to breathe, covered with several hundred tons of gravel holding him in place. Not exactly the way he wanted his first day working in silos to go.

Authorities were called about 12:30 p.m. Tuesday to Milestone Contractors, a highway, heavy construction and site-development general contractor at 5160 E. 96th St. By 1:30 p.m., rescuers were in place. Walls was freed about 8:20 p.m. and taken to St. Vincent Indianapolis Hospital in fair condition, said Rita Reith, a spokeswoman for Indianapolis Fire Department. 

IFD Battalion Chief Kevin Jones quarterbacked the rescue.

“I would say ‘extreme danger.’ He was trapped up to his chest, you know, with gravel material all around him, so there is pressure on his body, there is potential respiratory problems and breathing problems … extreme danger.

“He did have a lifeline on him when we got there so we were able to secure him with that and we put our protective stuff on him such as ropes and things like that so he wouldn’t travel any farther down,” Jones said. 

Walls was inside the silo taking measurements. Every couple of minutes gravel, he was released from the bottom, lowering him down for another measurement. At some point, a vacuum developed, creating a pocket of air that was soon filled by Walls.

The fire department tried digging him out, which was time-consuming. They used a huge vacuum, also time-consuming. They even tried cutting a hole through the side of the silo.

“We were talking to him throughout. I mean, he was in good spirits through out the operation. I mean I was in there with him for quite a while,” Jones said. “He was in high spirits the whole time that I was with him … up until the time we brought him up and out of the hole he was speaking with us an in good spirits.” 

The Hail Mary came just as the sun was about to set, when enough gravel was released from the bottom of the silo to set him free.

The Indianapolis Fire Department issued a statement Wednesday that said Walls was given a clean bill of health and was back home in Kentucky. He also told firefighters he would be looking for a new job. 


From Rita Reith, a spokeswoman for Indianapolis Fire Department, on Wednesday.

“… Billy has been given a clean bill of health by the doctors and was released today. His wife, who arrived last night just as he was being brought to the ER at St. Vincent Hospital was with him and has taken him home.  He is already in Kentucky.  

“Billy sustained no internal injuries nor any broken bones which we all can agree is pretty miraculous. The ALS medical care he was given by the IFD Firefighter Paramedic inside the silo ,was instrumental in keeping his fluids up and his pain manageable. Billy would like to thank all the firefighters (IFD, Fishers FD, Greenfield FD, Sugar Creek FD), IEMS and St. Vincent medical personnel, Milestone Contractors and City of Carmel (Vac Truck) for all of their assistance in his safe rescue from the silo.   Despite the near tragedy Billy suffered yesterday, Billy remains in good spirits. He told his boss that he was not going into any more silos and would prefer to work in the shop. Although he would like to return to work tomorrow, his boss told him to take the rest of the week off and he plans to return on Monday.

“Billy was also able to confirm more directly what exactly happened inside the silo yesterday. While several plausible explanations were offered to firefighters from Billy’s co-workers, Billy says that this is what actually happened.  Yesterday was Billy’s first time doing the inside silo work and prior to the accident at 12:30 pm – he had already successfully measured the inside of another silo on property and was halfway through this one.  For the measuring process the silos are filled with gravel to provide a stable work platform from which to work for the person inside.  Billy was harnessed and appropriately secured to the cable that allowed him to adjust his harness as the controlled release of the rock occurred.  Each time they would prepare to release 3 feet of rock – Billy would adjust his harness so that he was “seated” just above the rock with his feet clear of the pile.  The rock would be released and he would lower himself down to the next level.  However, this time – the rock was released and Billy’s feet and weight had not properly cleared the rock and were still on the pile as it was being released from the bottom.  Billy says that he misjudged the distance and had too much slack in his line when the pile was being released. His feet and weight still on the rock – along with the extra slack in his cable – allowed him to be sucked into the pile.  Thankfully he says that he had his 2 way radio in his hand – not his pocket – so he was able to communicate to his co-workers.   

“He is so appreciative of the efforts of all but especially the 7 rescuers who assured him that they would not leave and stay with him the entire time.  The rescuers were incredibly diligent in their efforts to free him but yet ensured that he was comforted and tended to both physically and mentally during his time in the silo.”