Death Jump: Farmer Survives Airborne Combine Accident

“Looking back, there was no premonition that things were about to get crazy,” says Matt Griggs, pictured with his wife, Kelly, and son, Carter.” ( Photo courtesy of Griggs Farms )

A rag doll in freefall. Matt Griggs was seconds from death, at the whim of a combine beyond his control, pinballing against the interior of the cab. The massive machine, a 35,000 lb. behemoth, was roughly 4’ in the air, at the peak of a bizarre aerial jump that could never qualify for even the most outrageous Dukes of Hazzard script. Dropping back to the ground, the front tires touched down on a narrow, rural Tennessee backroad, catapulting Griggs from the box in an explosion of glass and depositing him in a skidding heap on the blacktop.

Head first and boots last, Griggs’s 6’3” frame had shot over the steering column, through the windshield, across the feeder house, and onto the pavement 10’ in front of the combine. The impact of flesh on asphalt should have been followed by the crush of bone beneath rubber—a combine tire—and a trip to the morgue. Instead, Griggs escaped a harrowing farm machinery accident, and the Tennessee grower is insistent: His survival was not by chance. “This should have been impossible for anyone to walk away from. Impossible,” Griggs explains. “Listen to the details and you’ll know that what happened to me has nothing to do with luck or coincidence. Since when do combines stop on a dime?”

“Something Is Off”

In the rolling hills of west Tennessee, located in the northeast corner of Crockett County, Griggs, 40, is the fifth generation of his family to work land purchased in 1882. Griggs, alongside wife, Kelly, and long-time employee Zach Wilson, grows no-till corn, cotton, soybeans, and wheat across relatively small fields (38” rows) averaging 20 acres in size, contoured by tree lines, terraces and ditches. Planting, general fieldwork, harvest or shop time, the three farmers are an interchangeable lot, interdependent for livelihood—and safety.

In 2020, the trio grew 500 acres of dryland corn, but the Crockett County ground was a desert from July 4 to mid-August, resulting in highly variable yields at harvest. By September, Griggs was cutting 80-90 bu. corn on hilltops and 250 bu. corn in the flats. All told, Griggs averaged 168 bu. per acre, right in line with his five-year average.

On Sept. 22, a Tuesday with cloudy skies and a high of 85 F, with the operation’s 500 corn acres already binned, Griggs, Kelly and Wilson began custom harvesting for a neighbor, and by the early afternoon had finished cutting the final 25 acres. Inside a Case IH 7120 combine, Griggs polished off a quick box lunch, as Zach cranked an 18-wheeler and began a 10-mile drive carrying one last load of corn to the granary in nearby Fruitland, while Kelly turned out of the field in a New Holland T7.270 tractor, pulling an empty grain buggy, heading for the family operation headquarters and shop only 1.5 miles north.

“It was just the right angle and right speed, and it caused my header to unlatch,” Matt Griggs remembers.

 
Fields empty, the 2020 corn harvest was complete. Clockwork. No hitches. Rock’n’roll timing, with cotton and soybeans still two weeks from picking and cutting. In short, every piece of the puzzle was falling into place, Griggs explains: “Everything was typical and all systems go. Looking back, there was no premonition that things were about to get crazy.”

Earlier that morning, hauling grain, Wilson echoed the same sentiments of farming bliss. “A couple hours before, I was thinking, ‘It feels great going through a harvest and having nothing go wrong.’ I never saw the big curveball coming only hours later. Nobody did.”

At roughly 1 p.m., Kelly pulled into the front yard of her home, directly across the street from the farm shop, parked the tractor, walked into the house, and waited for Griggs’ arrival. As the minutes of no-show began accumulating into an uncomfortably odd pile, she dialed Griggs’ cell, got no answer, and then opened the iPhone locator, noting the app registered no movement on her husband’s location.

A breakdown? A flat tire? “He was only a mile and a half away. It was a weird feeling telling me the math didn’t add up,” she says. “I had this feeling in the pit of my stomach that was growing by the second. Sometimes you just know something is off.”

General Lee

Exiting the stubbly field shorn of its corn, Griggs pulled onto the blacktop of what was technically a two-lane road, but with a narrow width and absence of stripes, the road was essentially a skinny, naked lane. A mile later in the low hills, Griggs was almost dead-center between crests, one 75 yards ahead and the other 75 yards to the rear.

“I had this feeling in the pit of my stomach that was growing by the second,” says Kelly Griggs.

Simplified, Griggs was in a bowl, and at the bottom of the dip, a culvert crossed the road. Although paved, the spot was uneven and peppered with gravel—rough as a cob. At 20 mph, in a 2012 Case IH 7120 weighing roughly 35,000 lb., and equipped with a Case IH 3206 six-row corn header weighing approximately 4,000-plus lb., Griggs hit the culvert patch and watched as the header jumped and the top bar bounced out of the feeder on the cradle house. In a split second, the header nose flipped downward as the implement completely disconnected from the combine. “It was just the right angle and right speed, and it caused my header to unlatch,” Griggs remembers. “Looking back, I didn’t have the header securely latched, although I had the hooks on the bottom engaged, but they weren’t grabbing the bolts as securely as needed.”

A 3.5’ high corn header turned upside down forms the shape of a rudimentary launching ramp—even for a 20’ combine. In a General Lee moment, the dual tires (each 21” wide and 5’-plus high) hit the inverted header ramp and shot the combine into the air, tossing the unbuckled Griggs from the driver’s seat and into the ceiling. “I never had a chance to even hit the brakes,” he recalls. “The combine went in flight and when the front wheels came down, it came down more on the left, and I started getting thrown from side to side inside the cab. I’d say I bounced five to six times, before going through the windshield (6’ x 5’ and 3/8” thick). I remember hitting the driver’s door, then the right glass, then back to the left side of the steering wheel, and then going through intact glass that broke when I went through. I can’t remember nothing else.”

(See related, Descent Into Hell: Farmer Escapes Corn Tomb Death)

Incredibly, Griggs woke up in a heap of glass and blood, on his belly 10’ in front of the feeder house. In a reverse image of Griggs’ position, the header lay 10’ directly behind the combine’s back wheels. Wearing a t-shirt, jeans and work boots, Griggs remained motionless on the ground for an estimated 30 seconds, gathering his breath and willing himself to rise from the pavement, despite four broken ribs, a fractured L4 vertebrate in his back, lacerations across his arms and back, gashes on his head, and heavy road rash. “I had to do something,” he recalls. “I can still hear the noise behind me; the engine was going wide open.”

Stitched, Patched, and Wrapped

Adrenaline pumping to deflect the pain, Griggs climbed back into the cab, shut down the machine, and began searching, in vain, for his smartphone. Instead of his cell, he grabbed a two-way radio and called Kelly for help. Silence. Kelly was inside the house, away from the tractor and radio.

“The thing that truly keeps a farmer up at night...was happening in front of my face,” says Kelly Griggs.

Unloading at the granary, Zach heard the crackling call through poor reception and could only piece together a few words.  “I was right on the edge of pickup, and I could tell something had gone wrong, but not to what degree. I’d just pulled in to unload, and I called back, but Matt didn’t answer. I figured it had to be something small, maybe like he’d dinged the unloading auger.”

Getting no answer on the two-way, and with no cell salvation, Griggs stumbled to the roadside and sat down, resigned to wait—hoping help would arrive.

Within minutes, Nolan Holyfield, a county neighbor and undergrad, drove over the northern crest and spotted Griggs and the combine wreckage. Holyfield’s presence quickly was followed by the chance passing of Kim Hopper—a nurse.

Within minutes, Kelly’s cell rang with Holyfield on the line:  “Miss Kelly, Matt’s gone through the combine windshield and he’s really hurt.”

“Farming families dread this type of phone call,” Kelly says, “especially at harvest or planting. Maybe you’re the wife, or the parents, or the sister, but you don’t want this call.”

Steeling her emotions, she jumped in a pickup and drove the short seconds to the wreckage, finding Hopper seated behind Griggs, ensuring his head remained stationary. “It was like watching my nightmare come true,” Kelly explains. “The thing that truly keeps a farmer up at night, a serious injury to a loved one, was happening in front of my face.”

“As bad as Matt was, I had to back away because something just clicked inside me,” she recalls, “and I went into organization mode. We had to do something right then because the whole situation was so dangerous and you didn’t know who might come speeding over the hill next.”

“What happened to me was physically impossible to survive,” insists Griggs.

In a steady stream of rapid-fire communications, Kelly called the ambulance service and her parents, followed by more calls for help to neighbor Jordan East, who was harvesting 2 miles away, and neighbor Danny Kitzman, who owned heavy-duty construction equipment. To a person, they dropped everything and came running.

Ten miles away, responding to a phone call from Holyfield, Wilson pulled away from the granary in a blaze. “All I knew was that Matt was hurt, and that’s all I needed to know. I promise you: That International grew wings for about eight minutes.”      

 “Farming communities react so fast,” Kelly echoes. “The sheriff was driving 90 miles per hour to get here. Dr. Revelle, who works in the ER, heard about a combine accident on his scanner and came to find out what happened, and he later took such good care of us. We’re indebted to them all.”

Approximately five hours after bursting through the combine window and collapsing in daze at the road’s edge, Griggs exited the hospital—stitched, patched, and wrapped—but nonetheless a walking miracle. “I survived because of the hand of God and there’s no doubt in my mind. Take a look inside the cab at the details and that’s the real story.”

“Physically Impossible”

Although the header was totaled, the combine sustained relatively minimal damage. The steering column and wheel (and driver’s seat) were broken; glass shattered; the grain tank required replacement due to crumpling; the rear part of the unloading auger was bent; and the one back rim was bent. However, nothing major was affected. “The frame of the corn header from top to bottom is about 3.5’ tall,” Griggs describes. “That means the combine came at least 4’ off ground. I know that nothing underneath the combine was damaged because it has about 24-30 inches of clearance from ground and nothing touched on bottom.”

From the moment of Griggs’ ejection, he insists the Case IH 7120 made an absolutely abrupt stop. No further propulsion, no skidding, no tipping over. To the point: Griggs contends that even after surviving the initial accident, he should have been crushed to death by the massive combine tires. However, after clearing the header, the combine appeared to have hardly moved, according to Griggs. “What happened to me was physically impossible to survive. I know 30,000 lb. of steel going 20 mph can’t stop on a dime.”

“I survived because of the hand of God and there’s no doubt in my mind,” says Griggs.

 “My hand came off the hydrolever and it was still pushed forward,” Griggs continues. “So what stopped the combine? It’s all driven by computer wires and has no mechanical linkage. I’m talking about thousands of feet of wire throughout the combine and all the wires were completely intact, not damaged, except for the wires going to the hydrolever, and those were completely severed—just like they’d been cut. Literally, those were the only ones damaged. That combine should have kept going and rolled over me. I got one answer: Jesus Christ.”

When Griggs was carted into the ambulance, Kelly climbed into the cab to retrieve his wallet—and saw the severed wires. “I was in awe. It gives you a sense of peace. There’s no way Matt survives except that God is not done with us here.”

“Worth Telling”

Griggs points to two personal failings the day of the accident: Header check and seatbelt. “I’m guilty. I’ve been on a farm all my life, and my habit is to do the same thing over and over. I’m always in a hurry and dealing with small windows of time, and that was my excuse not to be safe. As farmers, we’ll pay attention to crop details, but not safety details, but we still know it only takes one time to have loss of life or major injury or career ending accident.”

“We don’t want this to happen to someone else,” Kelly adds. “Check your seatbelt. Double check the header. If knowing about what happened to Matt can save one person’s life, then it’s more than worth telling.”

Farmers Help Farmers

Each fall, in multiple places across farm country, crises arise and accidents strike, and although hazards are a constant, so is the steadfast response from agricultural communities. “When the paramedics showed up, I took a picture of Matt and sent it to a friend, and asked her to pray,” Kelly says. “Within an hour, she posted to 15 different ag groups on Facebook and my phone was blowing up with people who cared. These were people from across the country that we didn’t even know. Within 48 hours of him coming home from the hospital, it was like the entire country knew and people were reaching out from as far away as Florida, Michigan, New York—and Australia. I’m talking about people who were gonna show up here to offer help.”

“Farmers help farmers, and I’m talking about when they don’t even know you,” says Kelly.

“You always see accidents in farming and so you respond by taking someone a meal, or helping mow, or giving money, or assisting in some tiny way—and you never think in a million years the roles are going to be switched and you’ll be the one receiving help,” Kelly continues. “I want the whole world to know that farmers help farmers, and I’m talking about when they don’t even know you. All they know about you is that you farm, and that says to me that I don’t want to be part of any other community.”

“We’re just grateful from the bottom of our hearts,” Griggs concludes. “There’s a two-part takeaway from what happened to me. One, never cut corners on safety because it catches up in the end. Take a second to check your gear and click your seatbelt. Trust me, the window glass is much thinner than you want to believe. Second, I fall short all the time, but I know who I believe in and I know where I’m going when this life ends. Tomorrow is no guarantee.”

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