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Surviving the Unthinkable: A Life Changing Event 1988

Life Changing Event: A Journey of Survival

You never know when a life changing event is going to happen. This was one of those times. It was the summer of 1988 and this Canadian fishing trip included my father and two friends (Gene and Dick), along with myself. 

The four of us set out in the afternoon and planned on driving through the night and arriving at Cochrane Ontario sometime the next morning where we would purchase our fishing licences and camping permits. My father and I would share the driving so we all would at least be able to get a little sleep.

The GMC suburban was loaded and stacked with 3 canoes on the top. Two canoes were made of a kevlar – carbon fiber type material and one was an aluminum canoe with a square stern for the small outboard. I was the pilot for the first half of the drive.

Life changing Event

For some reason I was having trouble keeping the truck pointed straight down the road. It seemed to wander a lot and it was a bit of a handful especially when being passed by another vehicle. Somewhere between the border and Toronto I decided to pull over for a quick break. While we were stopped, I mentioned that the truck wasn’t handling very well and my Dad said it was probably the wind blowing and that I wasn’t used to having 3 canoes on top. He asked if I wanted him to drive and I gladly said yes – after all, it was his truck and I figured if there was something wrong he would notice it right away. So we switched seats, I became a passenger and onward we went.

It was around 5 am, the first stars were just beginning to fade. I had been snoozing with my head propped against the door window. I do remember going through North Bay and as we left the city I decided to remove my seat belt and lay down on my half of the front seat.

 This would prove to be the best decision I had ever made in my young life. This was the first life changing event of the day. There were about to be a couple of others.

starry Sky

Somewhere approximately 30 miles north of North Bay I heard Gene in the back seat yell ‘LOOK OUT!’ and I felt the truck drop off the road onto the shoulder. Everything that happened from this point on took only seconds – my immediate thought was that a moose had jumped into our path and my dad had initiated evasive maneuvers.

For whatever reason, I made the decision in that split second to stay down, right where I was. This was the second life changing event. In the next nanosecond, we hit something. Hard. And with a tremendous bang. My world was immediately thrown into a rolling, smashing cacophony  of noise and collision. My next thought was ‘oh, this sounds bad, we’re probably not going to be driving away from this’ and one other thought came to me – ‘ok, I’m still alive, I’m still alive’. Then nothing.

Life Changing Event: the Boulders
Life Changing Event

The next thing I remember was opening my eyes and hearing my dad asking me if I was allright. I was flat on my belly, looking out a window (no glass left of course) towards the highway. There was a weight on my back and I realized it was my dad, hanging from his seat belt. 

I realized we were were upside down at that moment. Sitting on the road was a tractor-trailer and the driver was just getting back  into his cab. I saw him say something into his CB radio and then incredibly, and before I had the sense to shout to him, he drove off! 

After spending a few seconds making sure I could move my fingers and toes I told my dad that I thought I was ok and then while he shouted for a response from the other 2 guys I wiggled through the window and stood up. Dick, who had been sitting directly behind me and was fortunately lying down as well responded that he thought he might have a back injury since he couldn’t feel his legs. Gene, who was behind the driver, didn’t respond.

My father managed to work his way out through the same window and we quickly checked each other over for any obvious life threatening injuries which may have been masked by the adrenaline. 

Finding none, we jumped into action and tried to open the back door which was facing the road. The other side of the truck was pinned tightly against the rocks and couldn’t be accessed. It took quite an effort but we got the door open enough to access Gene and as soon as we did he became conscious and in a panic started thrashing and screaming ‘get me out!’. 

The Rocks

His head was covered in blood and as we attempted to lift him through the door he went into convulsions which lasted maybe 15 seconds but felt like an hour. We managed to get him to the side of the road and propped him up among the rocks – my dad told me to stay with him and do what I could while he checked on Dick. When Gene came around again, he noticed all of the blood and asked where it was coming from. It was apparent that a lot of it was coming out of his ears and he specifically asked about that. I told him he had a cut on his ears – I didn’t want to tell him it was coming from inside of them. Meanwhile, my father was making Dick comfortable – he was still inside the truck but didn’t appear to be hurt other than the horrible feeling of not being able to move his legs. Because of this, we left him right where he was and made sure that we didn’t move him in any way.

Up to this point, perhaps 15 minutes had passed. Probably more like 5 but it’s hard to estimate time during experiences like this. Suddenly a car appeared, slowed down and stopped. A feeling of relief at the possibility of help for our 2 injured friends went through me. There were 4 young ladies in the car and as they got out one of them ran over and said to me – “we’re nurses on holiday, how can we help?”. Whoa. If you ever are waiting for help and the first people that come along are trained to help in exactly the way you need – let’s just say I was overwhelmed. I immediately pointed to Gene who appeared to have the injuries that needed attention right away. A couple of the nurses went to him and the others went to Dick. I kind of went away at that point – trying to collect my thoughts and settle down a bit – when suddenly, heading in the direction of North Bay came an ambulance.


What? I knew that there was no way an ambulance could be here this quickly, plus it was heading into North Bay, not out in our direction. As it turns out, there had been an accident a few miles further on and this was an extra, empty ambulance returning to it’s station. In addition to being very fortuitous timing, I now consider this the third life changing event that happened that day. The paramedics and nurses (we had a bunch of them running around by now) did their thing, loaded us all into the ambulance – I got to ride in the front seat –  turned on the siren and started making tracks towards the North Bay hospital.

After the dust settled – everyone survived. Gene was in intensive care for 2 weeks, internal injuries but he made a full recovery. Dick had broken part of a vertebra but once the shock to his spinal cord wore off he was fine and he also made a complete recovery. My dad had no injuries at all. I had a nasty cut on one of my fingers (no problem) and once we got to the hospital I started to freeze up. Every muscle in my body screamed when I moved. Just blinking my eyes hurt (well, a little anyway).

I had pulled and strained and bruised just about every part there is that can be pulled, strained or bruised. Also – I had a serious neck injury with 3 ruptured discs. ouch. I had no way to tell at the time how much pain this injury was causing because I was in pain everywhere and couldn’t isolate any particular spot. So, with a neck brace and some aspirin, I was released. I’ve lived with this injury over the years and most days are fine but there are times when it can be a real ‘pain in the neck’.

Needless to say, the fishing part of the trip never happened. We stayed in North Bay for a few days, until my brothers came up to get us and our things.

The aftermath: One of the things to note, this happened on highway 11 which is the main route north once you get to this point. In recent years, there has been considerable effort to make this road safer by widening it and removing the huge jagged rock walls which once bordered the roadway so these types of accidents are much less likely to occur. As it turned out – the cause of the accident was a combination of things – I mentioned the poor handling of the truck and how it seemed to wander on the road. Once we inspected the truck, a broken strut was found on the right front wheel and it was evident from the rust on the break that it had occurred at sometime in the past and not as a result of the accident. Also, my father was probably a bit drowsy and perhaps wasn’t able to react as quickly as he might have. Once we were off the road and in the gravel it acted like wet snow and pulled us into the rocks.

sad fisherman

Also, and this was a little bit frightening to me – If either me or the passenger directly behind me had been sitting up we would most likely have been decapitated. The first rock ledge we struck was at the level of the truck’s hood and it scraped across the passenger side of the hood, removed the dashboard covering and broke through the roof supports on that side of the truck. Then we flipped. a bunch. Having laid down only minutes before was miraculous. It was also somewhat of a miracle that I didn’t get tossed out during the wild ride. And the final miracle was the quick arrival of all of the medical personnel. My deepest thanks go out to them, I’m pretty certain this quick response saved the life of one of my friends. I’m at a loss to explain how all of these things came together at precisely the right time, but although it was a terrible accident I feel fortunate for the way it turned out but for me, it was truly a life changing event. We tried again the following year and I can happily report that we made it there and back.

Be safe out there and live for the moment, it can all end in a flash.


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