FRENCHTOWN — If his plunge was terrifying, Kyle Rauch’s recovery is downright dizzying.
With no crutches and nary a wince, the 19-year-old Frenchtown Rural firefighter spent time Thursday recounting his harrowing experience in the early, dark hours of Dec. 18, when he responded to a fatal pileup of semi trucks on Interstate 90 west of Alberton only to become a victim himself.
“It happened all so fast, but it kind of was a shock to me, like, 'This isn’t happening. I’m falling,'” Rauch said.
A 2017 graduate of Butte High School, Rauch (rhymes with wow) was in Missoula on Thursday with his mother Kelley for a doctor’s appointment 13 days after undergoing surgery for a broken right wrist. That was an unexpected setback, three weeks after repairs to a broken femur, the longest and strongest bone in the body.
Rauch dropped into Frenchtown Fire’s main station on Marion Street to fulfill requests from local reporters curious to hear his first-hand account.
Two drivers lost their lives in the predawn five-truck pileup on black ice. Vilyam Veresko of Moses Lake, Washington, fell an estimated 60 to 70 feet to his death along Montana Rail Link tracks after jumping blindly over the bridge railing to avoid an oncoming truck. Jatinderpal Singh of Delta, British Columbia, was killed in his cab at the back end of the chain reaction.
Rauch is a volunteer resident firefighter a year into a two-year residency with Frenchtown Fire. He arrived on the scene that Wednesday at 5:30 a.m. with four others in two vehicles from Frenchtown Station 8 in Alberton.
They pulled to a stop on the bridge in the eastbound lane in front of the wrecked trucks, which had all been westbound when the lead truck slid out of control and dumped its flatbed load of lumber on the bridge.
After donning his gear, Rauch made his way along the bridge on the opposite side of Veresko’s fall. He remembered squeezing between the concrete railing and a bunk of lumber when his right leg slipped and his knee buckled.
“I tried to catch myself on the jersey barrier and I’d fallen off the bridge,” he said stoically. “I tried to brace myself the best I could. I curled up in a ball and next thing I know I hit the ground and was kind of shocked. I was like, 'OK, I just fell a distance. Nothing hurts. Let’s see if I can’t get up.'”
The distance, later measurements confirmed, was nearly 40 feet — the equivalent of a four-story building.
Rauch said he didn’t remember landing on the leg that was broken, but on his head. His helmet and glasses flew off.
One step up the steep bank confirmed the worst. His leg buckled and he slid farther down the hill toward the Montana Rail Link tracks that pass under I-90 at that point.
Though it was pitch black out, partner Grant Misztal, another volunteer resident firefighter, saw the fall. Others on the scene were trained in rope rescue, and the truck that arrived just ahead of Rauch and Misztal happened to be carrying all the right equipment. Rauch was wrangled to the deck and a waiting ambulance in a Stokes basket — a litter used in search and rescue — and a system or ropes and pulleys.
“It was the higher angle of a low-angle rescue,” Frenchtown Fire Chief Joe Calnan said. “There was a lot of bad with this whole thing, but there were some good things. The people that we had that time that were with the rescue were pretty competent. They were able to get it set up pretty quick and get it going."
Rauch underwent surgery later that night at St. Patrick Hospital in Missoula to address multiple fractures in his femur.
His doctor bills are covered by workers compensation, but the Frenchtown Career Firefighters union created a GoFundMe site to help with travel and other expenses for Rauch and his family. The goal was $4,500. In less than two weeks donations approached $5,000.
Rauch said the support has come, and keeps coming, from near and as far away as West Yellowstone and Wyoming.
“It’s been just phenomenal,” he said.
Meanwhile, he went ice fishing Sunday, barely a month after the fall. It took some getting used to when he was saddled with a walker on the heels of the leg operation, then a pair of crutches. Now, the former midfielder for the Butte Bulldogs is down to one crutch, and sometimes none at all.
His doctor said full recovery from a broken femur takes nine to 12 months. Rauch is champing at the bit to get back on the job long before that.
“He says I’m right on track, (but) he won’t look at me until mid-March to be able to come back for light duty,” Rauch said. “So after that we’ll take some time and just strengthen up, physical therapy and all that. Then we’ll hopefully make our way back to full time.”
As dangerous as the life of a firefighter can be, Frenchtown Fire’s Mel Holtz said Rauch’s was the only workers comp injury claim the department had last year. And it was the first traumatic injury he’s seen in his seven years there.
“Typically, we see rolled ankles and some allergic reactions to bee stings on wildland fires, mostly just occupational injuries,” Holtz said. “We have also had exposure injuries of our EMTs working in the back of the ambulance where a patient coughed up blood and it got in someone’s face.”
“It makes you think about the kind of dangers that you’re putting yourself into,” Rauch allowed. “But it really doesn’t stop me from coming back. I mean, I want to heal, I want to heal up faster, I want to come back here as fast as I can. But you know, healing takes time.
With time, he promised, “I’ll be back probably better than ever.”