John Vihtelic

John E. Fahner-Vihtelic





716-273-3743 ofc.  716-737-3255 Home






J.E. Fahner-Vihtelic
Deputy Director
Office of Technology Transfer
University of Rochester Medical Center
601 Elmwood Ave. Box 706
Rochester, NY 14642
716.273.3743 (voice) & 716.506.0136 (facsimile)

Those of you that donít know about Johnís mountain driving accident may be interested in the following Readerís Digest article. Itís quite a story. -dd

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  • Readerís Digest March, 1977

    HE DIDN'T REALIZE what was happening until it was too late. One minute his car's headlights were probing the twilight along a winding mountain road; the next minute his world came apart. The station wagon strayed to the right, hit a depression in the narrow gravel road and bounced out of control. A few car-lengths ahead, the road's shoulder had washed down the mountainside into a steep ravine. Now he felt his car tumbling, heard the crunch of buckling metal, sensed himself being tossed around like a rag doll.

    When the crash ended, he found himself lying on his stomach on the inside roof of the car near the base of the ravine. He ran his hands over his body. Everything seemed normal- just a few cuts and scratches. He glanced at his watch: it was 8 p.m. He tried to pull himself free, but something was wrong. Twisting backward, he saw in the near darkness that a two-foot length of root jutting from the base of a fallen tree- about six inches in diameter- had punched through the wind-shield, clamping the instep of his left foot against the dashboard as cruelly as if he'd been caught in a bear trap. He had the presence of mind to turn off the ignition, lessening the danger of explosion. But then, in growing panic, he began jerking and pulling at his leg. He kept this up most of the night, until the agony became unbearable and his strength ran out. Exhausted, he groped for his sleeping bag, pulled it over him and, dulled by pain, dozed fitfully. Tomorrow, he thought, someone will find me.

    THE ACCIDENT happened on the evening of September 11, 1976. Just four days earlier, John Vihtelic had arrived in Portland, Ore., from his home in Whitehall, Mich., for a ten-day training course at Drake-Willock Systems, a manufacturer of kidney-dialysis machines. His new job would make use of skills he had developed in the medical corps of the U.S. Army Green Berets, and as a civilian working at St. Mary's Hospital in Grand Rapids. He planned to establish a service territory for the company in Philadelphia and also to marry Mary Fahner, a teacher from Whitehall whom he had known since childhood.

    An energetic 28-year-old with black hair, walrus mustache and lively blue eyes, John had borrowed the company station wagon the previous day and headed north from Portland to explore Mt. Rainier National Park in southern Washington. He spent most of Saturday on the snow-covered slopes of Mt. Rainier, hiking to an altitude of 9000 feet before bad weather forced him back. It was late afternoon when he returned to the car, but there were still a few hours of daylight left so he decided to drive to Mt. Hood, about 150 miles south, that same evening.

    Unknown to him, the route he chose through the mountainous Gifford Pinchot National Forest was one of the most treacherous in the Cascade Mountains region. As he headed south, he was forced to creep along a rough, single-lane gravel track cut precariously into the mountainsides. After two hours of hard driving, he must have dozed off. A split second later, he hit the bump and plunged into darkness.

    WHEN JOHN AWOKE that first Sunday morning, he realized he was lucky to be alive. The car was crumpled like a tin can, its roof crushed in places to below window level. He had at most a foot and a half of vertical space in which to move. His access to the outside world was a few inches of space still open through the buckled driver's window-space he could reach only by painfully twisting on his pinned leg. Beyond the window, a white-water stream thundered through the narrow ravine, and, on the other side, a steep embankment rose toward the road. Looking up through the trees, he could glimpse the grade he had come down before his luck ran out.

    He saw a car go by early that morning, and was sure he'd been spotted. He had no way of knowing that he was virtually invisible. His car had bounced 150 feet down the 6o-degree slide and now lay close against the base of the hill. Bottom side up, it blended with the dirt on the hill and the gray stones of the creekbed.

    When John failed to report to work Monday morning Steve Evarts, his boss at Drake- Willock, was worried. The Ranier region, he knew, has a savage reputation. He called the rangers there, described the car John was driving and asked for a search of the park. Within hours, 110 miles of park road had been covered, ravines and drop-off checked. The head ranger informed Evarts: "That vehicle is not in this park."

    As DOZENS OF CARS went by without stopping, John Vihtelic began to realize it could be days before anyone found him. An apple was all he'd found to eat in the car, but he was not worried about food. Over six feet tall and 190 pounds, he could exist for many days on his body's reserves of fat and muscle. What he did need was water. Thousands of gallons a minute were rushing by just 12 feet from the car.

    Piece by piece, John began to dismantle the interior of the car. First he improvised a "fishing pole," yanking out the heavy metal headliner strips that held the inside lining to the roof. Then he assembled bits of electrical wires ripped from the door panels and roof, plus cord from his sleeping bag and nylon string from his tennis racket. He tied one end of this line to his pole, and the other around a T-shirt. Poking the whole contraption out the driver's window, he lofted the T-shirt into the creek, let it soak, pulled it back into the car and squeezed the moisture into his mouth. It took several successful casts to produce just one glass of water, and many casts weren't successful at all - the wires snagged on roots along the creek, or the tennis string snarled and broke. But he knew now that he would not die of thirst.

    During his first days in the ravine, John worked steadily on the root that pinned his foot, jabbing at it with a lug wrench in an attempt to twist and break the wood fibers. But it was slow going and painful; as often as not, his desperate pokes struck his ankle instead of the root. He remembered what he'd been taught in the Army: If taken prisoner of war, it is your duty to think always of a way to escape. The words kept repeating themselves. He threw his body back and forth, hoping to rock the car free from the root. He tried to puncture the spare tire to get at the jack behind it, in hopes of using that to lift the car from the root. But nothing he tried worked.

    He kept to a strict daily routine. Each morning he would "fish" for water, then drink, sponge off his face and comb his hair. Between "work spells," he napped for two to three hours day and night. He kept track of his activities with paper and pencil, meticulously noting down the hour and day when he woke, when he drank, what he was thinking. He knew that keeping his mind occupied was important if he was to remain sane. The worst times came at night when it was too dark to work and he couldn't sleep. He would lie in the cold car and pray. Please, dear God, get me out of here. I want to see my family.

    On Wednesday September 15, Johnís older brother Frank, having flown to Portland from Detroit, set out on his missing brothers' trail In the town of Ashford, a few miles west of the park gates, a tavern owner said she thought she had seen a man answering John 's description the previous Saturday morning that he had asked directions to Portland. But this turned out to be a case of mistaken identity - John had never been in the tavern at all - and would result in a frustrating search west of Rainier instead of south.

    BY FRIDAY, John's flagging spirits picked up. A weekend was coming; families would be out for a drive or a picnic.. He attached the vanity mirror from the visor to his tennis racket with masking tape. The sun never hit the car directly, but for 2Ĺ hours each clear afternoon it came close enough for him to reach with the outstretched racket. He would signal the cars as they drove by; he was confident he would be discovered.

    Saturday dawned bright and clear, and traffic increased. At least 6o cars went by that weekend, and John flashed his mirror at dozens of them. One car stopped above him on the opposite side of the ravine. He was certain he had been seen and began to yell and bang on the side of the car with the lug wrench, but after a few minutes the car drove off. By Sunday evening he was angry, frustrated. Eight days had passed. I can see the cars, he thought. Why canít they see me?

    By now Frank had been joined by two other brothers, Larry, 33, an airline pilot and Joe, 25, an engineer. Three of John s' friends from Whitehall, including Mary's brother Tom, had also flown out to join the Vihtelic search-and-rescue attempt. They rented three cars and split into teams, one man driving, the other riding the fenders to get a good view into ravines and gullies. Whenever they saw a two-track road, they followed it to the end They passed out flyers with Johnís description at gas stations, motel, taverns and restaurants. They cajoled local newspapers into publishing the story and running his picture. They visited local police departments. "We have more than 100 missing persons reported," one detective told them bluntly. "1f he is really out there, hell have to help himself"

    INSIDE the wreck that second week, John realized that the nights were growing colder. At 4000 feet, September temperatures can drop to freezing overnight. His sense of time running out became urgent. One more weekend, he thought. Jf J'm not found by then, I never will be.

    From Wednesday to Friday, dump trucks went back and forth in an almost steady stream. John flashed his mirror until his arms ached and the sun slipped from his narrow ravine. When he counted a hundred trips on a single day, he knew that no one was going to see him. He'd have to get out himself.

    On the second Saturday, with hope and money running out, Joe Vihtelic and Mary Fahner's brother Tom passed out flyers in the Mt. Hood area, then headed back to Rain ier for a last try. To save time they cut through the mountains, taking the exact route, in reverse that John had taken two weeks before. At about seven 0 'clock that evening, Tom slowed for a treacherous hairpin turn, then accelerated up the hill on the other side One hundred fifly f'et below, John heard another car go by.

    ON THE 15th DAY, John desperately turned his attention once more to the root; either it or his foot had to go. Stabbing with the lug wrench was obviously not going to work - the fibers were spongy and bounced back, and the misses were too painful. He needed another tool.

    He opened his small leather suit-case and tossed it toward the creckbed. Then, shaping a headliner rod like a shepherd's crook, he began scooping stones toward the suitcase, working them slowly up the side-only to have them fall away inches from the rim.

    Finally, at dusk, he managed to nudge a cannon-ball-sized rock into the suitcase. Placing his hook through the handles of the suitcase, he pulled the treasure carefully back to the car and lifted it inside. Like a sculptor working with chisel and mallet, he placed an end of the lug wrench squarely against the root and hit it with the rock. For the first time he felt the iron bite across the grain into the wood. He knew now that it was only a matter of hours before he could work himself free. But it was dark, he was exhausted, and he forced himself to rest.

    When the first gray light of dawn filtered into the ravine, he was ready. His foot had been pinned to the dashboard for 16 days; now, as he chopped through the fibers and pulled out chunks of root, blood rushed back to the parts of the foot that were still alive. He groaned with pain, for it felt like hot pokers being driven through his flesh. But when the last bits of wood fell away, three hours after he began, he pushed himself through the window, threw his arms in the air and screamed, "I'm free! I'm free!"

    He broke a limb from a tree to use as a crutch and began the difficult climb up the 150 foot embankment, dragging his injured foot behind him. Almost an hour later he pulled himself over the top, lay down by the side of the road and turned his pale, whiskered face toward the warmth and light. It was the first time in 16 days that he had felt the sun.

    JOHN VIHTELIC was found by a dump-truck driver and taken by ambulance to Portland, where doctors termed his condition "remarkable". He had lost 25 pounds, but was otherwise in good health. However, because circulation to his foot had been cut off for so long, a great deal of tissue had died. The foot had to be amputated just above the ankle.

    After three weeks in the hospital, John was discharged. Today, fitted with an artificial foot that functions almost like the real thing, doctors say there is no reason why he can resume his favorite activities - bicycling, skiing, skating. He is hard at work as his company's service representative in Philadelphia. And he and Mary Fahner plan a summer wedding.

    For John Vihtelic, the long ordeal is over.

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