Len Pugsley walked miles, hurting with every step, in an effort to get fit again. But the most painful moment was yet to come.
Len Pugsley still doesn’t remember the accident last August.
His first hazy recollection is of waking up in a hospital bed at Harborview Medical Center, Seattle, and wondering why he was there, hurting all over.
"You hit an elk," his wife, Lisa, told him.
As he pondered it over, it made sense that he could have hit an elk while flying his airplane. Len, a pilot for Stemilt Growers, Inc., Wenatchee, Washington, was flying about 1,000 hours a year—a huge number even for a commercial pilot. His job was to ferry Stemilt personnel back and forth between orchards and facilities around the state. It was a job he loved. His dream job, in fact.
He often flew the plane low. He’d land on dirt airstrips in eastern Washington, and if an elk ran out of the brush in front of him, he’d have no chance of missing it. And he often flew over the Colockum wildlife area where elk were bedded down. If the elk stood up….
As he came in and out of his morphine-induced sleep, the story unfolded a piece at a time.
He had hit an elk, but not in a plane, his wife told him later. He was in a car.
Len and his wife had been driving back from Seattle, where their daughter is at college, to their home in East Wenatchee the night it happened. They were about five miles past Cle Elum, at about 9:30 p.m., when Len noticed the bright lights of another car coming towards him. That’s the last thing he remembers.
Police say that the 1,400-pound, 7-1/2 point bull elk that ran in front of his car was one of the largest they’ve seen. After hitting the elk, his car hit the oncoming car head on.
Mike Parrish, manager of Stemilt Growers’s Olds Station plant, happened to be taking his wife and three children to Seattle that night, and flying out to Hawaii for a family vacation the next morning. He’d hoped to get on the road to Seattle right after work, but felt it was important to attend the company’s annual grower appreciation picnic in Wenatchee that evening. It was 8:30 p.m. by the time Parrish and his family set off.
He was approaching Cle Elum when he noticed lights ahead and some sort of commotion. He pulled up. A badly crushed car was in the middle of the road, and another was in the ditch. A baby was crying, and a huge elk was lying in the road taking its last breaths.
"I elk hunt, and it was the biggest elk I’ve seen," Parrish said.
He told his children to stay in his pickup truck. His wife, Mary, who is a teacher and knows first aid, went to the car in the ditch and found an injured couple and a baby. Mike headed for the car in the road and found the driver unconscious, his face covered in blood. The car’s roof was crushed all the way down to the dashboard. The man was hunched over the wheel and looked as if he were confined in a tin can, Parrish recalled.
"He wasn’t breathing. We had to get his airway open."
Parrish said he just had to put his emotions aside, assess the situation, and stay calm. He had been trained in first aid while an Eagle Scout and as part of his job at Stemilt.
With the aid of a truck driver who had stopped to help, he managed to open the back passenger door and crawl inside. He kicked up the caved-in roof so they could sit the man up and wipe the clotting blood off his face. The passenger was injured but conscious and said her husband’s name was Len. Parrish never thought to ask for his last name.
He had to hold up Len’s head so he could breathe until an ambulance arrived, which took a tremendous amount of effort. "The sweat was pouring down me," he said.
He estimates he had been holding Len’s head for between five and eight minutes when another car, driven by a woman who was an emergency medical technician, arrived at the scene. She had a first aid kit and neck brace. Even with the brace, they still had to hold his head up.
Parrish asked the truck driver to relieve him so he could go check on the other car and was surprised to find Amy Smith, who works in the marketing department at Stemilt. She had multiple injuries, including a punctured lung, and was having difficulty breathing. Stewart had a broken heel. Mike’s wife, Mary, was holding the couple’s three-month-old son, Payton, who was uninjured. The Smiths were on their way to the funeral of Stewart’s brother in Ohio—though they didn’t get there—and had left their two older children with relatives.
After about 35 minutes, a helicopter arrived to transport Len and his wife to Harborview. An ambulance came for the Smiths, and the Parrishes continued their journey, saying a prayer for the people in the accident.
The following Wednesday, while in Hawaii, Parrish received an e-mail from Stemilt saying Len Pugsley had been involved in an accident. Suddenly, Parrish realized who he’d helped on the way there.
Len said he wasn’t surprised Parrish didn’t know him at the time. "I don’t think my mother would have recognized me," he said.
Lisa was hospitalized for a week with multiple injuries, and spent the following six weeks at Len’s bedside. Len suffered a broken nose, broken arm and leg, torn rotator cuff, dislocated elbow, crushed sternum, a flail chest, and a punctured lung. While in the hospital, he developed pneumonia twice and later a staphylococcus infection.
But his overriding thought was to recover as fast as possible and get back to work, even though doctors said he could be in rehabilitation for months. After leaving the hospital, with an arm and a leg in casts, he was transferred to Colonial Vista in Wenatchee for physical therapy.
"The first day there, they put me in a wheelchair," he recalled. "They said, ‘If you can go to the end of the hallway and back twice in a day, that would be great.’ I went up and down 15 times the first time out and 20 the second time out."
Frustrated that they weren’t working him hard enough, he was relieved when they eventually sent him home. He joined a gym and each day walked miles despite the pain. "Every step hurt," he said.
Gradually, he grew stronger. Four months after the accident, he felt ready to go back to work, but the greatest pain was to come. The Federal Aviation Association informed him that he would not be granted a medical certificate to fly again until a year from the date of the accident, even though he was making what the doctors called a miraculous recovery.
"I was so depressed and bummed out that I would not have a job," he said. "Not being able to fly for a living has hurt me more than anything else. That bothers me from the time I get up in the morning. That’s the most painful thing for me."
Len has been flying for 40 years, since he was in high school, and has his own small plane. He wanted to fly with the U.S. Air Force, but couldn’t because he wore glasses.
He had worked as an orchardist, a professional ski patroller, a pest board fieldman, and a horticulturist and pilot at Chief Wenatchee before joining Stemilt six years ago as a field horticulturist. One day, his boss at Stemilt, Dave Mathison, asked him if he could fly him down to a dirt airstrip near Ice Harbor, where the company had orchards.
Soon, all Len did was fly, sometimes doing as many as 12 or 13 legs in a day.
When he got the news from the FAA about his medical certificate, Len reluctantly called West Mathison, Stemilt’s president, to tell him he couldn’t fly until next August. Mathison said he wanted Len back and would find him other work to do until he could fly. In the meantime, Stemilt would hire a temporary pilot. "You still have your job," he told him.
"That was a huge, huge relief for me," said Len. In the meantime, he is doing field work. He is grateful to Stemilt for its support and thankful just to be alive.
"If it were not for Mike Parrish, I would have died," he said. "He had great presence of mind to do what he did. That took a lot of courage."
He’s amazed by the coincidence of three Stemilt employees being involved in the same accident more than 50 miles from Wenatchee. "What are the chances of that?" he said. "I should have bought a lottery ticket that day."
Parrish said it’s been exciting to see Len’s progress, which he attributes to his strong work ethic, high tolerance to pain, and previous experience with injury while skiing. "If it had been someone else, I don’t think he would have survived," Parrish said. "From what I saw, I didn’t think he was going to make it, but the man has just a way about him."
As he looks back, he’s thankful that he didn’t drive to Seattle earlier that fateful evening as originally planned. "Len has come to a lot of people’s aid," said Parrish, "and, when he needed it, somebody was there for him."