When Dennis Becker saw his grandson sinking in a semi-trailer loaded with grain, he did all he could to save him. But as he clawed through the pile of tiny kernels trying to free 14-year-old Layne Langridge, the 63-year-old man became trapped as well.
Within minutes, both had suffocated on Becker’s farm near Burstall in southwestern Saskatchewan.
Family members later realized, after the bodies were freed from the truck, how frantically Becker had been trying to pull the boy out – the nails on his purple fingers were peeled back.
Becker’s son, Barry, says he and his family replay the Aug. 31 tragedy in their heads every day.
And since last week, when three young sisters died the same way on their Alberta farm, the family has been especially devastated.
Becker, Layne’s uncle, says he even feels a bit guilty.
“We never talked about our incident and that these things do happen,” he told The Canadian Press from his home outside Calgary.
“Grain is dangerous … Things turn dirty and real nasty in an awful hurry before you even know what’s happening.
“Had I said that back then, when I had a chance, who knows.”
Could he have saved those girls?
RCMP have said Catie Bott, 13, and 11-year-old twins Dara and Jana were playing in a truck loaded with canola on their family’s farm near Withrow when they died Oct. 13. Their funeral is in Red Deer on Friday.
Becker is sharing the story of his family’s tragedy now, he said, to bring awareness to the risks of handling grain on a farm.
The Canadian Agricultural Safety Association has also called for more education on so-called “grain engulfments.” It says there have been a growing number of cases in recent years; a man in Ontario and a woman in Saskatchewan also died this year.
Becker said Layne often helped his grandfather and that day had been sitting on top of the truck with a friend as grain was being sucked through the truck’s hopper. The teen fell in.
His friend signalled that Layne was in trouble, Becker said, so Layne’s father and grandfather shut the hopper and climbed up on the truck to try to pull him out.
Layne was already up to his neck in grain – the seeds were filling his mouth – and the men were unable to grab his arms, Becker said.
As Layne’s father rushed underneath the truck to open a slide gate, hoping the boy would be spit out the bottom, the boy’s grandfather jumped into the back of the truck to try again to grab the boy.
They both came out the bottom and could not be revived.
Becker said the family was criticized by strangers on social media for putting Layne in danger. But farm children know more than most adults about how farms work, he suggested.
“I can promise you my dad and my brother-in-law would never have intentionally put Layne in harm’s way.”
Layne had a tight mop of dark curls, loved playing hockey and had just started boxing. Despite some taunting, he proudly wore pink. When a young boy who didn’t know English moved to town, Layne took him under his wing and gave him lessons.
He was also close to his grandfather, said Becker, and coaxed the restrained older man into saying goodbye with an “I love you” each time he drove him to school.
Everyone, even his family, called Dennis Becker “Swoop,” a nickname that stuck after he grabbed a door sill and swung into a class in school one day. He worked tirelessly – as a farmer, gas plant operator, town alderman, rural councillor, volunteer fire chief and member of the local Lions Club.
He had an infectious laugh and loved his family.
He lived a hero and died a hero, said his son.
“He clearly did everything he could to try to save his grandson and I would expect absolutely nothing less of the man.”