Congressman in surgery to repair ankle broken in boat crash

2009-08-28T10:05:00Z Congressman in surgery to repair ankle broken in boat crashFrom Gazette and Missoulian Staff The Billings Gazette
August 28, 2009 10:05 am  • 

KALISPELL - U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg underwent surgery Friday to repair a badly broken left ankle sustained in a nighttime boat crash that injured four other people Thursday on Flathead Lake.

"He's got cuts and bruises. His ribs are pretty sore," said Erik Iverson, Rehberg's former chief of staff.

The meeting was brief, said Iverson, a longtime friend of the Rehberg family.

"He cracked a joke, said I'd probably never seen him looking better," Iverson said. "His primary concern is with the other people in the boat."

Iverson said the congressman had a sizable bump on his head and his face was scratched and bruised. The ankle surgery lasted several hours.

Also injured in the crash were state Senate Majority Whip Greg Barkus and three other people who all were listed as patients at Kalispell Regional Medical Center on Friday afternoon, according to hospital spokesman Jim Oliverson.

"I talked with him this morning," Oliverson said Friday of Rehberg. "He was lucid, joking. He never lost consciousness."

Barkus, a longtime Rehberg friend and fellow Republican; Barkus' wife, Kathy; Rehberg's state director Dustin Frost, and Rehberg's deputy chief of staff Kristin Smith also were hurt in the crash.

Oliverson said he'd also talked with Barkus and that "he feels terrible, obviously."

The accident occurred shortly before 10:30 p.m. when a 22-foot fiberglass speedboat ran aground near Wayfarers State Park at the northern end of Flathead Lake, said Jim Satterfield, FWP regional director. He called it "a serious accident."

Campers heard the crash, went to see, and called 911, he said.

"Even though they were 120 yards away, they heard the crash clearly," he said.

When Bigfork firefighters responded to the 10:24 p.m. 911 call, only one person remained in the boat, which was perched on some rocks several feet above the water, said Bigfork Fire Capt. Wayne Loeffler.

Campers were trying to administer first aid as best they could, he said.

Of the four accident victims on the ground, Loeffler said it appeared at least three had been ejected from the craft. He wasn't sure about the fourth. As medical workers treated the victims, Loeffler said firefighters set up emergency lights and began cleaning up gas from Flathead Lake.

Oliverson said one person was taken to the hospital by medical helicopter and the other four arrived by ambulance. Iverson said Rehberg was transported by ambulance.

Officials closed Wayfarers State Park, which includes a large camping area, at 9:45 a.m. Friday.

"That site's going to be closed for a while," Satterfield said. People who were already at the campground were allowed to stay, but no new campers were allowed in.

Two campers who left Friday afternoon after making statements said authorities told them not to discuss anything they had seen at the accident site.

Onlookers in boats gathered near the scene, staring at the wrecked boat, which sat completely out of the water at about a 45-degree angle at the southern end of Wayfarers Park, where the shore is extremely rocky.

Satterfield said the boat and crash site would be subjected to a "standard investigation." Authorities, he said, will look at the condition of the boat. They will try to determine speed, figure out who was driving, whether alcohol or drugs were involved and whether anyone was wearing lifejackets.

Asked if Rehberg had said whether anyone on the boat had been drinking, Iverson said: "He didn't, and I can't say for certain one way or another. The congressman was a passenger on the boat, he was not driving. The investigation is ongoing, and I'm sure details will be forthcoming."

Satterfield said Wayfarers Park will not open until the FWP, the Highway Patrol and Flathead County Sheriff's Office complete their investigation.

It isn't clear yet who was driving the boat.

The state Justice Department confirmed that Kathy Barkus owns a 1998 Mirage roundabout. The boat matches the description of the wreckage, though state Fish, Wildlife and Parks officials have not confirmed ownership.

Meanwhile, friends and relatives of the crash victims continued to arrive at the hospital.

Iverson said Rehberg's wife, Jan, and his father were en route to Kalispell from their homes in Billings, and that family members of the other victims were either at the hospital or on their way.

State Sen. Gary Perry, R-Manhattan, a good friend of Barkus, told the Associated Press Friday morning that he had just heard about the crash and was on his way to the hospital - which, Oliverson said, has "had tons of calls from all over the nation."

Perry, from Manhattan, said he knew little about Barkus' condition. "It's a tragic accident," Perry said. "We're praying for him."

Likewise, state Sen. John Brueggeman, R-Polson, said that "we're just kind of in shock right now. We're keeping our fingers crossed," said Brueggeman, who said he's close friends with both lawmakers, as well as members of Rehberg's staff.

"Obviously Denny and Greg and everyone on the boat, they're all in our thoughts and prayers. We're hoping for the best for everyone."

On Facebook, where Rehberg has 3,335 "friends," people began posting messages at about 11:30 a.m. Friday, wishing him a speedy recovery: "We will pray for you to be healthy and stay safe! Thank God you are alive!!!" "I am praying that all injuries are minor and that all will soon be recovered. God bless!!" "I'm sorry to hear about your accident; our thoughts and prayers are with you."

Iverson stressed repeatedly in the conference call that Rehberg is doing well. "He's obviously pretty tired and pretty sore, but he's definitely the same guy. He was asking questions, making jokes and complaining that the batteries in his Blackberry are running down."

Jennifer McKee of the Gazette State Bureau contributed to this story.


FIRST REPORT:

Congressman Denny Rehberg is hospitalized in Kalispell after a nighttime boating accident on Flathead Lake that also injured a state legislator.

Rehberg and state Sen. Greg Barkus were admitted to the hospital last night, said Velinda Stevens, president of Northwest Health Care. Both men are in stable condition. Stevens deferred all other questions to Rehberg's press office.

State Fish, Wildlife and Parks officials were investigating the boating accident this morning and weren't immediately available for comment.

Rehberg spokesman Jed Link did not respond to interview requests this morning. Tom Schultz, the Republican congressman's Missoula press secretary, said he knew nothing about a boating accident, but that Rehberg's town hall meetings scheduled for Cut Bank and Shelby later today have been canceled.

Schultz did say his boss was staying at Marina Cay Resort in Big Fork and had planned to connect with Barkus, Republican majority whip of the Montana Senate.

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