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Billings fire rescue team recognized by governor for May sugar silo rescue

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Posted at 6:06 PM, Jun 30, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-30 20:06:55-04

BILLINGS — While in Billings Wednesday, Gov. Greg Gianforte presented the Spirit of Montana Award to the Billings Fire Department's Technical Rescue Team for its work saving the life of a man trapped in a silo at Western Sugar Cooperative in Billings in May.

“It’s an honor to get this award. It’s a very big time achievement award that we accept as an entire team, because it was an entire team effort. There is no single person that we can just call out, it was a great team effort by all," said Chris Voller, an engineer who was the first to make contact with the man.

Gianforte presented the award and a flag that had flown at the Capitol Building in Helena to the Technical Rescue Team at its home location of Fire Station 2 on Billings South Side.

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Governor Greg Gianforte presents the Billings Fire Department Technical Rescue Team with the Spirit of Montana Award.

The Technical Rescue Team responds to a variety of emergencies. They are dispatched to every accident that may need extraction. They are also tasked with urban search and rescue, high-angle ropes rescues to help people in precarious places on the Billings Rimrocks, and water rescues.

“All are under this one team. They have to do a lot of training. A lot of knowledge is in this team," Voller said.

On May 28, team members responded to a rescue unlike any they had attempted before. Firefighters built a box around the worker who was sunk up to his chest in fine-grained sugar and lifted him to safety.

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Billings firefighters work to construct a wood box in pieces small enough to fit through an 18-inch hole to rescue a man trapped in a sugar silo at the Western Sugar Cooperative factory in Billings on May 28, 2021.

The rescue was a delicate operation, with any small movement made by the trapped man only serving to push him deeper into the sugar.

The two-hour ordeal was complicated because access to the man was limited by a hole 18 inches in diameter, Voller said.

“He was buried with 15 feet of sugar up each side of him. The hardest part was that we had an 18-inch opening to get all of our equipment through. As you can see from the trailer, there’s not a lot of stuff that’s only 18 inches. Everything had to come in. We had to build it there to make all of our protective safety measures with a box around him and then all of our digging equipment and everything had to come in through an 18-inch opening," Voller said.

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Chris Voller, an engineer for the Billings Fire Department, holds up a fire hose that is about 18 inches in diameter.

Voller said the team used confined space rescue and trench rescue techniques to eventually lift the man to safety.

Voller said there are 32 people on the Technical Rescue Team, but many more firefighters responded and helped with the operation to save the man's life.

“It’s very humbling receiving this award. It is a very high distinction that the governor gave us. Without the entire team being as dedicated as they are and the department as a whole, we would not have had the outcome that we did have. It speaks volumes to the commitment and dedication of this department," Voller said.

The Spirit of Montana Award is given out regularly to Montanans in recognition of their accomplishments, dedication or service.

RELATED: Man rescued from silo at Western Sugar Co-Op in Billings