September 20, 2010

CANADA: Family hopes 21 hour ordeal will convince 82-year-old farmer to retire

TORONTO, Ontario / The Globe & Mail / National News / Prairies / September 19, 2010

Alberta man was stuck upside-down between engine and cab of a combine harvester after slipping during an oil change.

Morinville Fire Captain Herb Pearce and his crew rescued Alberta farmer Raymond Como, 82, on September 19.

By Josh Wingrove
Edmonton, Alberta

The more Raymond Como struggled, the deeper he sank.

After the 82-year-old slipped while trying to change a filter on his combine, he fell and wedged himself more than two metres below the roof of the machine. Caught between its engine and cab, and pinned upside-down among a series of pulleys and hoses, Mr. Como hung there for 21 hours, wearing just a light jacket as the temperature dropped to the freezing mark overnight.

Around 8 a.m. Saturday morning, son-in-law Barry Flynn called Mr. Como – the two men were set to drive to a grandchild’s first birthday party. Though Mr. Como would typically be in his home nursing a cup of coffee at that hour, there was no answer.

Sensing something amiss, Mr. Flynn drove to the farm. The cars were there, the door unlocked, coffee still simmering from the day before. He began searching the property, calling his father-in-law’s name, when he heard a sound coming from the combine.

“I heard a moan. I was 100 feet away. When I climbed up in the combine, he wasn’t in the cab. He was in the engine compartment,” recalled Mr. Flynn, 60, a local contractor.

Fire crews needed an hour to free the octogenarian, using the jaws of life to pry apart his combine in the process. Mr. Como is recovering in hospital. The family hopes the widower will now agree, finally, to retire.

“All us farmers have been after him, you know, ‘Raymond, set it down,’ ” said cousin and neighbour Frank Comeau, 69. “But he said ‘if I don’t keeping farming, that’s all I’ve got left. Drinking my coffee, and farming.’” Mr. Como has always farmed on his half-section, about 130 hectares located northwest of Edmonton. This year, he’s planted only about 50 hectares, all wheat. Granddaughter Tara Reeves, 28, lives in St. Albert, Alta., a nearby Edmonton suburb of about 40,000 people. She had talked with Mr. Como about moving there.

Morinville has a thriving small community, the historic Catholic church and the former convent that serves as the town's Historical and Cultural Centre. The sense of roots and stability is tangible along with the friendliness of Morinville's 6500 residents. Illustrative photo and story courtesy:

“We don’t want him out on the farm all by himself any more because of things like this, but he just doesn’t want to give up. But this might change his mind,” she said. “We don’t care if he sells it or keeps it. We want him close to us.”

Mr. Como was in and out of consciousness when found, and his core body temperature had dropped to 31 C. Mr. Flynn put a jacket on Mr. Como, who’d also suffered a host of scrapes and a head injury, while waiting for help. Once crews arrived, however, they struggled to reach the man.

Ron Cust, the volunteer fire chief and 34-year veteran of the local Morinville Fire Department, said his officers have used the jaws of life for collisions before, but “on a combine? No.”

“The extrication was one of our longest ones in a long time, close to an hour, because they had to dismantle this heavy piece of equipment,” Mr. Cust said. “How do you take it apart and not affect the person who is injured?”

Mr. Flynn, the son-in-law, had a suggestion.

“Barry said, ‘cut it in half, maybe he’ll quit farming,’” Mr. Comeau recalled, laughing.

Fire crews cut apart the Massey Ferguson combine (“It isn’t going anywhere,” a relieved Ms. Reeves said a day later) and lifted Mr. Como up and out of it just after 10 a.m., after nearly 21 hours.

He was flown to Edmonton’s University of Alberta hospital. He remained in intensive care Sunday, but was conscious and speaking, telling Mr. Flynn that during his ordeal, Mr. Como was just “hoping to get rescued.”

Swelling in his head, prompted by a day spent upside down, was subsiding, family say. He is expected to be in hospital for a month, recovering and battling kidney problems.

Mr. Cust said his department has urged farmers to carry cellphones when alone in the field, or to work in pairs. Mr. Como doesn’t own a cellphone. There were 578 farm injuries in Alberta last year, and 27 per cent of them involved machinery.

Mr. Comeau, 69, whose family kept the French spelling of its surname, said he’s amazed his elderly cousin survived. He and other neighbours will pitch in this month to clear the rest of Mr. Como’s fields.

“I know one thing – if it had been me, I’d have been dead just from hypothermia alone. It’s amazing he’s alive. It’s a miracle he’s alive,” Mr. Comeau said.

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