Men recall life-altering moment

Bob Alfred of Great Falls, brothers Lynn Haidle and Irv Haidle recall the events that
occurred June 3, 1980.

By Kay Braddock 

            It was a life-and-death incident and although it took place decades earlier, Bob Alfred recalls it was only recently that the once vague details of the accident became familiar to him.

            “For some reason or another, I had chosen not to ask, even though you always kind of wonder,” Alfred said.

            A 50th wedding anniversary party honoring Walter and Edith Hinebauch in 2002, would reacquaint Alfred and Irv Haidle - two men who barely knew each other, yet both of whom shared a unique life-altering experience.

            Alfred recalled first meeting the Hinebauch family in the mid 1970’s during his after-college travels throughout the western United States.

            “I had long hair and a dog,” Alfred shared, indicating the stage of life he was in at the time.

            A night’s stay turned into 16 weeks, before the Scottsbluff, Nebraska native returned home. But the family’s friendly and hardworking lifestyle enticed Alfred back to eastern Montana.

            The spring of 1980 was hot and dry. Then 28-year-old Alfred was working for Hinebauch Irrigation installing two large pipelines on the Haidle farm outside of Fallon in the Fallon Flat area.

            “We were working extremely hard to get this project in and it had been an extremely hot May,” Alfred said, recalling long stretches of 100-degree temperatures.

             As Alfred was backfilling the last 100 feet of the six-foot wide, ten-foot deep trench a couple hundred feet from the Yellowstone River, he remembers the blade of the D4 Caterpillar hitting something hard.

            “It was fairly rough terrain and I had to build a road to get up on the backside to get the last little bit of backfill done,” Alfred recalled. “The blade on the tractor didn’t have a lot of adjustment to it. I adjusted the blade up and moved forward and when I did I hit a rock or something in the ground and the right rear part of the tractor shifted.”

            That shift caused the tractor to slide down the ditch and flip over on its side, pinning Alfred’s waist between the caterpillar’s fuel tank and the hard dirt wall. Facing the caterpillar, which was still running, Alfred remembers the grinding of the machine beating at his pelvis.

            From that point on Alfred says he can only evoke bits and pieces of what happened following the accident.

            But what Alfred’s psyche has elected to forget, in likely a self-preservation mode, Haidle remembers well, describing the incident as if it occurred yesterday.

            Moments earlier in the late morning hours of June 3, 1980 Haidle drove past Alfred as he was backfilling. Crossing the nearby railroad tracks Haidle, who was checking on a mechanic repairing a diesel engine used to power two pumps, was about 200 feet away from Alfred. The engine, used to power the pumps to force water from the Yellowstone River through the pipeline’s 400-foot lift, was extremely loud, Haidle explained.

            “As I stepped and got out of my pickup I just glanced back and here I noticed a big plume of dust,” Haidle recalled. “ … And no caterpillar.”

            After running to the site and seeing Alfred pinned, Haidle said his first thoughts centered on turning off the engine. Due to dusty conditions and diesel fuel spilling from the tipped over caterpillar, Haidle recalled initially becoming concerned about an explosion.

            After climbing into the trench and turning off the engine, Haidle said his next concern was getting Alfred out from underneath the caterpillar. He recalled the man’s dire conditions.

            “He was just squished flat. I don’t think his body width was more than three inches,” Haidle said. “If it had crushed his chest it would have killed him.”

            With no tools nearby, Haidle began digging with his hands to try and free the man.

            “I realized, ‘Man, I’m not going to get him out this way,’” Haidle recalled thinking at the time. Leaving Alfred, he ran west along the railroad tracks, desperate to find something that could help aid the digging.

            Describing the discovery as a “God-thing” he recalled spotting a rusty spud bar about 300 feet away. Likely left by railroad crews, Haidle said he ran back to the site and used the tool to dig Alfred from the trench.

            “Then I could make some real serious progress,” Haidle recalled. “Of course when you’re trying to help in something like that you can’t do enough, fast enough.”

            But the tool was effective.

            “I hit something that made him scream even worse,” he recalled. “And here I had hit a rock. I found out that that rock was pushing right on his spine.” As he dug around the rock, Haidle managed to free Alfred only to have the weight of the trencher slump again, re-pinning the man.

            After digging a larger circle around Alfred, Haidle was able to make enough wiggle room to lift the man up and out from underneath the equipment. By then the diesel mechanic, who had called for an ambulance, had arrived with several others. While Alfred laid on the ground, the men used a long piece of plywood to shade Alfred from the sun’s intense heat. It was the only comfort the men could provide while waiting for the ambulance.

            In all, Haidle estimates the digging time lasted only about 10 minutes. Within 30 minutes an ambulance from Terry arrived traveling down the rough self-made road that had recently been created above the pipeline.

            “I’m quite certain that he felt he was in great danger of dying,” Haidle said. But rather than cursing God, Haidle remembers Alfred crying out for help.

            “He kept crying to Jesus ‘Save me!’” Haidle recalled. “I prayed that with him, but it sure didn’t look encouraging, just because I knew he had to have massive injuries.”

            Alfred’s pelvis was broken in four places. It had broken completely loose from his body. His urinary bladder ruptured, resulting in extensive internal bleeding.  He would undergo surgery later that day under the care of Holy Rosary Hospital’s Dr. Warren Randall. Ultimately spending 42 days of his 49-day hospital stay in traction, Alfred suffered a serious urinary infection and an adverse medical reaction.

            Although his injuries were extensive and painful, Alfred is the first to point out it could have been much worse. Given an initial prognosis of a 6-month hospital stay and years of arthritis, along with avoiding what could have easily resulted in paralysis, Alfred says he is left feeling only grateful.

            Life since the accident has been “off the charts,” the 58-year-old father of three and grandfather of two said. “An accident like I had, people don’t survive very often. I should have been dead and at the very least paralyzed.” 

            He suffers from no ailments resulting from the accident, noting he has a few minor “kinks” in his hips once and awhile.

            Haidle recalls that throughout the episode Alfred maintained consciousness, although Alfred say he can now only summon about five distinct instances. Two of those, which include moments at the Terry hospital and the Miles City hospital, he retells with some amusement.

            During his brief stay at the Terry hospital, before being transported to Miles City, Alfred recalls longtime Prairie Community Hospital’s Dr. Lawrence Krogstad reassuringly telling him, “ ‘Everything is going to be okay,’ ” But as Alfred looked down at the catheter used to remove fluid from his bladder he remembers thinking, “ ‘Fine, hell, my pee ain’t red.’ ”

            Alfred also remembers a brief moment before going into surgery at Miles City’s Holy Rosary Hospital. As he diligently read through a surgical release form following the advice of ‘never sign something until you read it first,’ Dr. Randall stepped towards him.

             “ ‘I’ve had people die from a lot less injuries than you have,’ ” Alfred recalls the doctor telling him. “I immediately signed and handed it to him.”

            A little over a month later Alfred was released from the hospital. His normally 190 pound, 6-foot frame had dropped to 149 pounds. He returned to Nebraska and spent the next few months swimming – following advice given to him by Dr. Randall.

            By January of the following year, Alfred had returned to Montana and was back working part-time for Heinbauch Irrigation. It was during his 1981 stay with the Heinbauch family that he would become reacquainted with a friend from Great Falls, Pam Hansen. The two would ultimately marry.

            He recalls a prophetic letter he received from Hansen one month before the 1980 accident. Hansen, who worked as an insurance agent in Great Falls, sent a disability income application to Alfred. It offered $1,300 monthly coverage during a hospital stay and a $650 monthly coverage for the remainder of the year under partial disability.

            “The closing paragraph of that letter was, ‘you never know when God’s going to lay you flat on your back for six to 12 months so you can think about your life,’ ” Alfred recalls. “A month later the application was still laying by my refrigerator and I was laying in the hospital.”

            Although Alfred’s rescue didn’t occur at the scene of a war-torn battlefield, he compares his feelings of gratitude to those expressed in the final moments of the 1998 film Saving Private Ryan. Having watched the movie shortly after his 2002 visit with Haidle, Alfred said he could relate to the main character’s plea, “I hope my life was worth something.”

            The movie’s emotional conclusion portrays fictional character WWII Private First Class James Francis Ryan bending down at the grave of a U.S. Army Captain who was instrumental in saving Ryan’s life.

            As Alfred recalls his rescue from an accident that occurred 30 years earlier, similar feelings of thankfulness overcome him.

            “I had no idea that it was even (Irv Haidle) that had saved my life,” Alfred said. “I assumed that it was three or four people that helped dig me out.”

            In the past eight years he has reflected on the sense of helplessness Haidle must have experienced. “I guess I can’t imagine that 30 or 40 minutes of his life,” he said.

            At the time Haidle says he experienced little emotion.

            “There’s fear running through you, but there’s no real emotion,” Haidle said. “Man, you’re just determined to get him out.”           

            Marking the 30-year anniversary of the accident, Alfred decided to show his gratitude by inviting Haidle and his wife Marilyn to dinner. He presented a plaque expressing his thankfulness of the actions Haidle took that fateful day. But both men also point to God’s providence in the situation.

            “My life has been very providential,” Alfred shared. “I believe that with every ounce of my being.”

            “I’m thankful that I had the opportunity to do my part and I’m very humbled by his response,” Haidle said of Alfred. “In all of that one’s self tends to become more diminished. I was a small tool to getting him dug out of there.”

Published June 9, 2010

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