MISSOULA — The 30-year-old South Carolina man who spent more than 33 hours trapped in his vehicle after it went off a rural Ninemile Valley road last week prayed, yelled for help and honked the horn while he waited for rescuers.
Shaun Lee, of Moncks Corner, S.C., said he could barely move his mouth or arms while he hung upside down, pinned by the steering wheel of his Chevrolet Impala rental car on an embankment off the West Side Ninemile Road.
“I thought I was dead, dying or pinned … or all three,” he said Monday from a hospital bed at St. Patrick Hospital in Missoula.
Lee was on his way to stay the night at a motel in Huson when he took a wrong turn on Ninemile Road and got confused, ending up on West Side Ninemile Road — a gravel road with windy turns.
When he lost control of the car, it went off the road, landing nearly 40 feet down and on its side.
“I wasn’t going no more than 15 miles per hour,” Lee said.
The crash left him with a broken neck and a contusion on his spine, along with other superficial wounds from banging on the glass while he was trapped.
He started occupational therapy Monday, he said.
It’s safe to say that Lee has had a streak of bad luck since his trip to Montana began three weeks ago.
He has gone through three rental cars after his own 2001 Chevrolet Suburban broke down in Tennessee, Lee said. The first two rentals broke down, he explained, while the third was destroyed in the Ninemile crash.
He left the South to find work in the Bakken oil fields of North Dakota, he said. When he was unsuccessful in that endeavor, he drove a rented Chevrolet Impala to visit an aunt in Missoula.
And then his dog ran off near the Walmart on North Reserve Street.
After arriving last Tuesday, Lee said he stayed a few nights with his aunt before the fateful drive up Ninemile in search of a motel he had spotted earlier in the week.
But he took the wrong exit and a few miscalculated turns, and things went from bad to worse when he was coming down a slope on West Side Ninemile Road around 12:15 a.m.
Despite his best efforts, his car flew off the wet road and rolled, landing on an embankment where it was stuck until Friday morning, he said.
In his damaged and upside-down condition, Lee drifted in and out of sleep, but remained conscious and very thirsty. He didn’t hear any vehicles drive by, but he did hear an airplane.
Lee gained a new perspective on life, as well as a healthy respect for bears during those lonely hours he spent in the forest. He thought a lot of his family and his aunt, whom he described as very “near and dear to me.”
“Please let me make it,” he pleaded while reciting the Hail Mary from inside the remnants of the rental vehicle. “I want to be OK.”
Lee starting yelling for help when he glimpsed a Forest Service vehicle stopped along the road above him around 9:30 a.m. Friday, he said. He couldn’t tell if it was day or night, he said, but soon enough a man came alongside the vehicle and comforted Lee, telling him he would stay there until help arrived.
Lee said he felt humbled by the rescue that ensued.
A Ninemile fire crew arrived about 15 minutes after he was discovered and administered oxygen to the 30-year-old while the Frenchtown Rural Fire Department was en route. Lee said responders extricated him from the vehicle using the Jaws of Life.
Taylor Blakely, a member of Frenchtown Rural Fire, said Lee was placed on a backboard and carried up the embankment by a chain of people.
“I want to thank the Missoula County Rescue Services and the forestry service,” Lee said.
Rescuers said Lee initially thought he had been trapped in the car for three days, but Lee said Monday the time he spent in the car was more like 33 hours.
Montana Highway Patrol Trooper Wade Palmer cited the man for reckless driving.
“The aunt never reported him missing, because it’s normal for him to disappear for several days,” Palmer said. “It’s the same thing he told us.”