By Sam Wheeler
for the Mail Tribune
Horrifying logging accidents don’t usually come with survivors; it takes the grit and determination of someone like Rob McKenzie to live to tell the tale.
Seven months ago, McKenzie was struck by a 100-foot-long Douglas fir tree he had just cut on a steep hillside in the Pilot Joe timber sale. The tree smashed into him just below his hips and then rolled over him, inflicting injuries that he’s still battling.
The veteran timber faller from Sam’s Valley says the outpouring of support he’s received from family, friends and community members since the accident has played a big role in pulling him through the injury.
There should be no shortage of support when a benefit auction gets under way for McKenzie at 5 tonight in the gym of Cascade Christian High School, 855 Chevy Way in Medford.
In addition to a silent auction, there will be a benefit sale, spaghetti feed and a dessert auction. The cost is $5 for adults and $2 for kids 12 and under. The benefit, which ends at 8 p.m., is open to everyone.
Community members and dozens of Rogue Valley businesses donated over 100 items to the benefit, organizers said, including guided fishing trips, a half-year supply of coffee, massages and a $500 travel voucher.
“I’m at a loss for words to be on the receiving end of so much giving,” said McKenzie, 51. “I’m just so thankful for the people in my life … it’s very humbling to say the least.”
McKenzie has been making steady progress since he was injured Sept. 27, but doctor’s have not given him a date for when he can expect to make a full recovery, he said.
“They don’t know if I’ll ever regain all the feeling in my left leg,” McKenzie said. “It really makes you stop and think about how precious life is.”
McKenzie suffered several broken ribs, a pair of punctured lungs, a shattered pelvis, torn diaphragm, bruised liver and a shoulder injury in the accident. The entire left side of his left leg has been numb since he was injured, along with both his feet, he said.
Working his way out of bed, into a wheelchair and eventually onto crutches has taken eight surgeries, he said, and there are a handful more to go.
He spent 40 days recovering at Rogue Regional Medical Center , 14 of them in an intensive care unit, which “was like 40 days in the wilderness,” McKenzie said.
Occasionally, McKenzie gets around the house with a cane, but uses crutches if he’s up for any extended period of time, he said.
“He is a walking miracle, that’s what the doctors say,” said Pattie McKenzie, Rob’s wife. “And he’s determined that he is going to walk on his own again … he’ll do it.”
It took a meticulous and grueling rescue to haul McKenzie up 500 feet of steep hillside. Firefighters from Applegate Fire District 9, the Oregon Department of Forestry and Jackson County Fire District 5 joined with loggers in moving McKenzie on a backboard attached to a rope.
McKenzie and fellow crew members were at work in Hinkle Gulch, a remote area about three miles off Thompson Creek Road in the Applegate Valley.
“I remember hearing my pelvis break through my ear plugs. It just went crunch, crunch,’” he said. “At the time I didn’t have any idea how bad I was injured.”
Before rescue workers arrived, three of McKenzie’s crew members spent about an hour watching him and helping him sit up a few times every minute so that he could take a breath, he said.
“I couldn’t get a breath laying down because both of my lungs were punctured,” McKenzie said. “It was just excruciating pain every time they would move me.”
The 2-foot-diameter fir was falling uphill when McKenzie pulled his saw away from the stump and moved toward his planned escape route.
But the falling log slid down a crooked madrone tree growing about 75 feet away uphill, elevating its butt end like a seesaw and swinging it toward McKenzie.
“I was on the move and it met me like you would kick a football into the air,” he said. “I remember it very vividly.”
After McKenzie was hit, the log started sliding down the hill on top of him.
He was able to roll out from under the sliding log, and lay silent for what he thinks was about 10 minutes before regaining enough breath to yell for help, he said. Two nearby crew members heard his shouts and rushed to his side.
Normally, McKenzie said, he would have cut the hazardous madrone, but policy on the reforestation timber sale barred him from doing so without approval, which he said didn’t have time to find.
McKenzie said this will likely be his last logging injury, because he doubts whether he is capable — physically or mentally — of doing the work any longer.
“Our lives were changed in the matter of a moment,” he said. “I just can’t foresee myself getting out there again.”
Donations also can be made to the McKenzie family at www.donationto.com/Rob-McKenzie-Benefit.
Sam Wheeler is a freelance writer living in Talent. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story originally appeared in Medford Mail Tribune.