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We’re going down hard!
The helicopter lurched and bucked. I looked left to my two companions. Fear washed their faces. The airspeed indicator was spinning well past our cruise of 80 knots. There was a crack then a grinding sound. Again I looked past the photographer Ed Moss to John Connally the pilot. John was staring straight ahead. His hands were fighting the controls. I could fly the tiny Hughes 269-B myself. I had thousands of hours sitting in this seat but I’d never seen anything like this. John was moving the cyclic stick around like he was mixing dough. With his left hand he was trying to pull the collective straight up. I looked straight ahead to see where this ridewas going to end. We had just passed west bound over the north end of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Ahead was the complex of buildings that was
The aircraft lurched and spun around. One of the light standards on the back of the school’s football grandstands flashed by. We had passed over the school building. The field in front of us was empty. I ripped at my seatbelt. Between racing and my military background in helicopters I knew I didn’t want to be strapped down in a crash. I was afraid of fir. I was afraid of burning alive. The world went black.
December 1st 1977 this was scheduled to be my last day of work before vacation. In a few hours I would drive with friends to
The past two years had been amazing. I was the luckiest man on earth. My son Brian had been born. His godfather was Sid Collins the voice of the Indy 500. My regular job as journalist with WIBC radio in
Vision and sensation came back suddenly. It was a full on arrival of a new reality. My life had just changed forever. Then more reality, I was alive. I could hear the voice of the pilot calling over and over “Paul, what happened?” Above me was the 8 inch wide main rotor blade curled and twisted but still connected to the rotor head. I was on my back lying on the cinder track that rimmed the football field.
My military and paramedic training taught me to take stock of my situation. I could feel the warmth of blood running over my face. There was little pain. I knew from sensations my left leg was broken. There was no need to sit up and see that. Two nights earlier I had a patient on our Operation Life Ambulance. He was a farmer who had been run over by his tractor and had an angulated tib-fib fracture. It was a break of both bones in the lower leg commonly called a skiers fracture. I was sure I had one too. Otherwise I was O.K.
God had been riding with us. The
The first firefighters arrived and dragged a booster hose connected to the engine with them. As I looked up at the firefighters I could tell they were worried about the spread of the gasoline but like all heroic firefighters everywhere they stood their ground. I was safe. Moments later the Medic ALS ambulance roared up. I could hear someone arguing with what seemed to be a school official. He didn’t want the emergency crews to drive over the grass on the football field. I can’t imagine how angry he would have been if the helicopter hit at the 50 yard line instead of the running track.
My luck was still holding. The medical rescuers were Indy’s newly established paramedics. Back then there were only about 30 paramedics in
“No way, I’m fine, just a little blood and the left leg. You’re not sticking me!” I told them.
“O.K. have it your way.” was the response.
I was loaded into the ambulance and asked to be taken to
Siren screaming we headed east on famous
“No it’s not. You’re going into shock.” They said with very concerned looks.
“That’s ridiculous!” I couldn’t get shocky from the injuries I thought I had.
“Here see for yourself.” I sat up and they pulled back a drape on my left leg. Both bones were sticking out and my foot was alongside my knee! My left leg had almost been ripped off and was dangling by tendons. Stay calm. I tried hard to relax and not move. The crash just became very real and I wasn’t out of the woods yet.
The ambulance had radioed my vital signs and conditions ahead to the emergency room and they were waiting outside the door. A call also went out to the Indianapolis Fire Department Doctor John Seltzer an orthopedic surgeon. I was being treated as a brother emergency worker. In the group waiting at the door was one of my best friends Henry Bock. You will know him later as Doctor Bock the white haired guy standing on the racetrack and helping drivers out of twisted wrecks. Right now he was the best thing I could see. I’d worked in the E.R. with Hank and had great confidence in his skills. Hank even had me work a couple of days every May at the Speedway Emergency center, then called the Track Hospital, just to keep my hand in race rescue. Now he was rescuing me.
“Henry, pay attention.” I told him. “I know where I am, it’s Friday December 1st about 5 o’clock, and I was working.”
“So.” He said.
“This hurts like hell and I don’t want you wasting time asking me all those questions. I need morphine.”
“O.K.” Henry didn’t talk much when he was evaluating but he came through. Two I.V.’s later and a bunch of meds on board and I was in less pain buy very worried.
Dr. Seltzer came to the hospital in his fire department car with red lights and siren on. A quick consult with Henry and examination of my leg and he leaned over me. “Paul, this is a very serious fracture. You are my friend and I’m worried. It might be better if I turned you over to someone a little more distant.” Doc Seltzer, Doc Bock and I had been part of a team that helped create advanced emergency care in
“Alright, I understand.” Now I was worried. Was I going to lose my leg? The best time of my life was quickly becoming a nightmare.
They called for Dr. Bob Brueckman one of the cities top orthopedic surgeons. When he arrived he was ready for surgery. The assistants were ready to move me to surgery. Dr. Brueckman stopped them saying “Let’s put him under first. Paul, I don’t think I can save your foot but I’ll try.” I knew I like this guy.
The next morning I came out of surgery waking up in a double room and my pilot John Connaly in the next bed. Neither of us was in any shape to talk what with the painkillers and all. The next day it was back to surgery. This time when I woke up my leg dangled from a rope connected to a bar over the bed. I had a trapeze hanging there too so I could pull myself up. Dr. Brueckman came in to talk and had a couple of residents in tow. One was Terry Tramel who was to become the man who was first call for every injured race driver. He, later, was the doctor who ripped his belt off to tourniquet Alex Zanardi’s leg at the scene of his horrible accident at Lauschishitz Ring in
“We saved the foot. You will be here a while. But you should be able to walk again.” You have no idea how such a pronouncement can make you feel. I set the start of the USAC season as a goal to recover. That was four months away. The day before I was to leave Dr. Brueckman cut off my last of several casts. I bought an oversized pair of tennis shoes and was on my way.
One of the greatest things about race fans is their kindness. Literally hundreds of carefully written letters and cards poured in. It made me feel so wonderful. Then came the visitors. Every time the nurses tried to put a stop to my friends coming in it would someone they couldn’t stop. 500 Winners just walked in. The Mayor Richard Lugar couldn’t be turned away nor could the Governor. When I thought I was done with all of the different possibilities of how my racer and radio friends would think up to sneak in two of my buddies who were FBI agents appeared behind a nurse with very serious faces. They had just shown the nurse their credentials and said it was an investigation. Then they produced a bottle of Scotch. At one point Dr. Bock came up and handed me a wedge of wood on which he had inscribed a bawdy poem. He said it was so I could wedge the door and get some privacy and rest. “Hank, how do I get out of this bed to wedge the door shut?”
“Well you will need some beautiful woman to do it for you. And if it works out right she will stay in the room and you will want the privacy.” Hank said.
Sid was born Sid Cahn. His parents ran a general store on the northwest side of Indy. Sid went to
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