Whiteside detasseling deaths raise questions

2011-07-27T03:00:00Z 2011-08-05T15:30:00Z Whiteside detasseling deaths raise questionsBrian Wellner The Quad-City Times
July 27, 2011 3:00 am  • 

Donald "Goody" Matthews and his wife, Virginia, are looking for answers after two 14-year-old girls were electrocuted Monday while detasseling corn on their farm in Whiteside County.

The couple were out of town at the time of the accident, returned Tuesday afternoon to the muddy, 160-acre farm field near Tampico, Ill.

They said they were saddened by the news of the deaths and for the girls' families.

Jade Garza, 14, and Hannah Kendall, 14, both of Sterling, were working for Monsanto Corp. when, the company says, they and two other detasselers were electrically shocked by a center pivot irrigation system. The four were taken to CGH Medical Center in Sterling, where Jade and Hannah were pronounced dead. Another victim remained at CGH for observation while the fourth was airlifted to OSF St. Anthony Medical Center in Rockford and was listed in critical condition Tuesday.

The Whiteside County Sheriff's Office said several others felt the shock and were treated on the scene.

The farm is one of several owned by the Matthews couple, who live in Walnut. They contract with Monsanto for the planting and harvesting of their corn crop, saying the company educates its workers on the possible dangers of irrigation systems.

The couple speculated Tuesday that their irrigation equipment, which they said they bought in 1976, had been struck by lightning. They said the system is hydraulically powered.

A team from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration was continuing its investigation Tuesday.

At the time of the accident, 72 detasselers were assigned to the location, the sheriff's office said.

Friends and schoolmates of Jade and Hannah were asking questions of their own Tuesday.

Jade's best friend, Alexis Gomer, 14, of Sterling, was detasseling in another field Monday morning. She said she heard the news as she got on the bus to head home from the field.

"I don't cry in front of people," Alexis said Tuesday. "But I didn't care. I was crying so much for my best friend."

Every day after school, Alexis went to Jade's house to prepare for track. Alexis, Jade and Hannah were in the eighth grade together at Challand Middle School. They were about to enter Sterling High School in the fall.

"There was no one else like her," Alexis said of Jade. "She did the weirdest things. She liked Nirvana. I don't know another kid my age who likes Nirvana."

On Tuesday, friends and educators sought answers to the tragedy while sharing stories about the girls. Counseling services were offered Tuesday morning for families of the victims at the high schools in Sterling, Rock Falls and Morrison.

Some students even performed their own remembrance service. A crowd of 40 classmates and friends gathered Tuesday afternoon on a street corner in front of Challand with signs and balloons that Lundstrom Florist of Sterling donated. After getting 235 honks from passing vehicles, they marched to Kilgour Park and let the balloons go.

"All of us will miss them," Britni Shaw, 13, said.

Three 14-year-olds, Dazha Davis, Stephanie Garza (no relation to Jade) and Mercedes Sanchez, have started a Facebook page in honor of the girls, who they said were "inseparable."

"We were with them at the mall goofing off a couple of weeks ago," Dazha said.

Challand Middle School Principal Kathy Howard recalled having Jade as a student in her first grade art class.

"I remembered her name and her darling little face," Howard said.

Howard said Hannah was a "sweet girl" who was very close to her mother.

"Our hearts are heavy with hurt, especially for the families," Howard said.

Detasseling is common for students as a summer job around the Sterling/Rock Falls area. "It's a little industry around here," she said, adding her four children have detasseled.

Jerry Binder, Sterling School District human resources director, said his son was a detasseler every summer for seven years.

"This was such a freak thing," Binder said of Monday's accident.

"I never felt, as a dad, that my son was in peril," he added. "I assumed crews showed up, told him what to do and how to do it."

The minimum age to do detasseling work in Illinois is 12. In Iowa, it is 14.

Monsanto's spokesman Lee Quarles said Tuesday the company takes "a number of steps with safety in the field."

He said that the company is cooperating with local officials to "better understand the situation," adding "we're saddened by the terrible accident and loss."

Alexis Gomer, who said she has never worked for Monsanto Corp., said she never has been told in her experience detasseling to stay off irrigators.

"Before that even happened, I never once heard anyone say ‘stay off the irrigator,'" Alexis said. "We just climbed over them. I climbed over them five times in past years."

While the accident has caused some, like Mercedes Sanchez, to stop detasseling, Alexis said she won't stop. She knows now to stay away from the irrigators.

A bus picked her up in front of Challand around 5 a.m. Tuesday to take her to the field to detassel corn.

She shared her experience walking to the bus. "Jade, if you are with me, the street light will flicker," she said. The light turned off.

 


EARLIER STORY: Two 14-year-old girls were killed in an electrical accident Monday while they were removing tassels from corn in a Whiteside County, Ill., farm field, police said.

 

Eight other detasseling workers were injured in the accident at 8:50 a.m. in a field on Luther Road south of Starr Road in Tampico.

Jade Garza, 14, and Hannah Kendall, 14, both of Sterling, died in the accident, the Whiteside County coroner said.

Four crew members received electrical shocks when they came into contact with a farm irrigator, the Whiteside County Sheriff's Office said. Several others in the field also felt the shock.

At the time of the accident, about 72 detasselers were assigned to the location, the sheriff's office reported. They were working for Monsanto Corp., which has ended detasseling work in the area temporarily.

"I am saddened by this terrible accident and loss," Hugh Grant, Monsanto's CEO, said in a statement. "We place the highest priority on the safety of our contractors and employees; our greatest concern at this time is the well-being of the family and friends of those involved in today's devastating accident."

The four detasselers were electrically shocked by a center pivot irrigation system, the company said.

The sheriff's office said the four were transported to CGH Medical Center in Sterling. Two were pronounced dead. One remained at CGH for observation while the fourth was airlifted to OSF St. Anthony Medical Center in Rockford. Six others also were treated at CGH after being evaluated at the Rock Falls Fire Department.

"We express our sincere condolences to the family of the deceased and those affected by the incident, and we ask that everyone respect their needs at this time," Grant said.

The company is offering counseling services to the family and friends of those involved in the accident.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is investigating the accident, spokesman Scott Allen said. The agency investigates workplace accidents when more than three workers are taken to the hospital or a fatality is involved.

"We have two investigators at the scene," Allen said. "We intend to do a thorough investigation to determine how these workers were put in jeopardy."

The minimum age to do detasseling work in Illinois is 12, and in Iowa it is 14.

The Whiteside County Sheriff's Office was assisted by the Tampico Fire Department and Ambulance Service, Prophetstown Ambulance Service, CGH Ambulance service, Morrison Ambulance, Milledgeville Ambulance, Rock Falls Fire Department, Rock Falls Police Department, Illinois State Police and Whiteside County Highway Department.

The agriculture-related deaths come nearly a year after a grain bin accident in Mount Carroll, Ill., left two young workers dead - 14-year-old Wyatt Whitebread and 19-year-old Alex Pacas, 19, both of Mount Carroll. A third worker was seriously injured in the July 28, 2010, accident.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration ordered Haasbach LLC in Mount Carroll to pay $555,000 for 24 citations in connection with the deaths.

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