As Louis Giroux stepped down from his tractor on a September day in 1979, it crossed his mind that he should turn the PTO off. But it was harvest, time was of the essence and he was confident that unplugging his pull-type combine would take just a few seconds. Those few seconds are ones Louis wishes he had back.
“That one second can be the difference between life or death,” said the Montmartre-area grain farmer. In an instant, he found himself sucked into the header of his combine.
“I unplugged it and all of a sudden it just took off and caught my pant leg.” The only thing that prevented Louis, who was 29 at the time, from being swept into the combine was the hard heel of his cowboy boot that caught under the centre strand of the feeder chain.
In an instant, he was trapped under the auger with three metal prongs having gone through his leg and his body being inched toward the combine intake.
Fortunately, the clutch would get overheated and would kick out, giving Louis about five minutes to breathe and regain his strength. But when the mechanism cooled, it would kick in again.
He hung on for his life, literally, holding with all his might to the bottom of the auger while keeping his leg braced against the combine. While his leg had been punctured all the way through three times, twice in the thigh and once in the calf, he didn’t feel any pain. “When you’re going to die, there isn’t much feeling in your body — it’s more of a mental thing.”
Hope returned when Louis heard his neighbours in the next field shutting down for the night. Though he could hear their voices, his anguished screams for help could not be heard over the noise of his running tractor. The neighbours left, not knowing that their fellow farmer was slowly being pulled into his combine, inch by inch. “I talked to the Lord a lot and hoped that things were going to turn out.”
Back at the farm, Louis’s wife Gina was busy bathing their young children, Tanya, 5, and Kevin, 3. She had dropped off supper to her husband in the field around 6:30 p.m. and she knew he probably wouldn’t get back to the house until around 10 p.m. As 10 p.m. approached and there was no sign of Louis, she thought he probably stopped at a neighbour’s house for coffee, which wouldn’t have been unusual.
The registered nurse lay down, only to wake up at 11 p.m. with an uneasy feeling. “I just left the kids and went.”
When Gina saw the combine still running in the field, her instinct told her that something was terribly wrong.
Her worst fears were realized when she saw her husband lying beneath the combine.
Gina knew she had to turn the tractor off, but she wasn’t experienced with equipment and she feared the worst. “I was panicking and I knew if I did the wrong thing, it would suck him into the combine.”
Louis was able to get his wife to shut off the fuel switch and the combine died. The trapped farmer doesn’t remember anything after that. He assumes he passed out from sheer exhaustion and mental anguish.
“I ran to the neighbours and I was just screaming, ‘Louis is caught in the combine,’” recalls Gina.
It took several neighbours an hour to remove the young farmer from his combine, after which time he was transported to the hospital. While the physical wounds in his leg were quickly healed, the nightmare of fighting for his life for four hours took its toll. Louis couldn’t keep any food or water down for days, being hospitalized and put on intravenous for a week before he was able to go home.
By the next harvest, Louis had a new self-propelled combine, with his work habits and attitude having been changed forever. “You learn to appreciate life a lot more because not many people who get caught like that have an opportunity to come out of it.”
Farm safety is now paramount on the Giroux farm. “When it comes to fixing safety things on your equipment, take time to do it because an accident happens in a split second and it’s pretty hard to explain to a spouse that someone is gone because you didn’t take the time to repair something.”
With Louis’s son Kevin now farming alongside his dad, and Kevin’s four-year-old son Sebastian on the scene, safety never leaves the minds of the Giroux family. “Nobody moves a piece of equipment on this farm without walking around it and checking it first.”
Gina says she is extremely vigilant about remaining in contact with Kevin and Louis whenever they are in the field, always tracking their whereabouts and the times when they are expected back at the house. “Now we have radios in every piece of equipment and we all have cellphones,” said Gina, adding that if someone misses their estimated arrival time by even 10 or 15 minutes, she jumps in her vehicle to check out why they’re late.
Louis’s message to farmers is a simple one — “Slow down. Life is more precious than dollars.” †