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Man rescued from peanut silo

A 46-year-old employee of Birdsong Peanut Co. was pulled to safety Thursday morning from a peanut storage silo into which he had fallen more than 90 minutes earlier.

The man, whom officials have not yet identified, was uninjured and refused medical transport or treatment after firefighters pulled him out of the silo. In fact, he climbed down the ladder from the top of the silo without assistance.

It was a happy ending to a tense morning at Birdsong’s Factory Street property, where firefighters had at one point even considered dismantling the 50-foot silo where the man was slowly sinking further into the pile of peanuts inside.

“It was a long process,” Battalion Chief F.T. “Ted” Adams said. “We looked at every angle possible.”

With outside temperatures headed into the 90s and even the passage of tractor-trailers nearby affecting the situation, time was limited, he said.

By the time firefighters arrived on the scene, the man had sunk 15 feet below the surface of the peanuts, which were piled about a third of the way high in the container. Every time a truck passed the intersection, Adams said, the vibrations would cause the man to sink deeper.

Neither Adams nor other city officials could say how the man fell into the silo or whether he was wearing a safety harness at the time of his fall. When emergency workers arrived on the scene a little after 9 a.m., Adams said, the man was wearing a harness that was attached to a rope being attended by another worker who was inside the silo, standing on an interior platform.

Rescue workers were able to get an oxygen mask to the trapped man, and then they began to deliberate about how to get him out of the silo.

Adams said it was a situation they’ve trained for, both generally — with ropes and high-angle rescue drills — and specifically, having conducted training exercises at the very silos where Thursday’s emergency was unfolding.

Adams said he had participated in one other silo rescue — also successful — during his career.

Still, he said, things easily could have gone badly in the Birdsong entrapment.

“He’s lucky,” he said of the victim. “He could have suffocated.”

Twenty-two paid firefighters from Suffolk Fire and Rescue were assisted at the scene by four Birdsong employees, a Virginia Beach Fire Department tactical team and a crane and operator from Suffolk Iron Works.

“The Birdsong worker [inside the silo] was a huge asset to us,” Adams said. “He stayed inside the whole time.”

In the end, in fact, firefighters were unable to attach a line directly to the trapped man, so they tied their rope onto the safety line that was being controlled by the employee on the platform and pulled the other employee out that way.

Birdsong Peanut officials said through a city official that they were pleased with the positive outcome of Thursday’s events, but they would not speak directly to members of the media at the scene.

In an email later in the day, Charles Birdsong, vice president and general manager of the Suffolk company, said, “We are evaluating the circumstances surrounding this incident, and we are all so thankful that Alton was not injured, and he even asked to return to his workplace.”

The freed worker was escorted without fanfare or public statement from an ambulance parked behind a police cordon, where he had signed a refusal of medical treatment, to an office across the street from the silo.