Dan Kuny went to work in the woods as a high school kid, and he's been out there ever since. A Mendocino County native, Kuny, 61, is well known throughout the County, both as a veteran logger who has worked the forests from Gualala to Covelo, and as a football coach here in Boonville. Kuny has also worked all over the state when called upon by CalFire to clear trees in the path of wildfires, such as the terrible fires that did so much damage to Lake County last year. He also is much in demand outside the county where, in the Sierra foothills, he was working when he was nearly killed. At 61, he's as fit as a teenager. "I can't wait to get back out there," he says.
Dan Kuny's Remarkable Story (as told to Bruce Anderson)
It was May 10 when I got hurt. I was working up in the Sierras in Calaveras County. We were working in the burned-out area from the Butte Fire they had up there last year. We were cutting burned timber. I had probably cut about eight trees that morning. I fell a tree that was about 120 feet tall with about 400 board feet in it, and it got hung up in some oaks. I looked at it and decided to cut it off the stump so it would fall out of the oaks. But it didn't fall. It stayed up in the branches. I watched it for a while, and could see it was hung up on a big limb. I've done this a hundred times here at home and it was not going to fall. I thought I'd be fine. I had to walk past that tree to fall a big sugar pine. So I walked past the tree in the branches and made my undercut in the sugar pine and felled the sugar pine. As it started to go down, I stepped back four or five feet to watch it. And as I watched it, the previous tree came down and hit me from behind and knocked me down to my knees. I started to get up. But because the tree came down over a lump in the land, it bounced and came back and hit me again. That is what did all the damage, that second hit.
I never saw it coming, never heard anything. I never lost consciousness. My chainsaw was still idling. The tree hit me right across my upper back slightly to the right. Twice. That second time broke my foot and seven vertebraes and several ribs on my right side. As the tree came down on me I felt one of my ribs break. I felt it crack.
The ground was fairly soft so my body was about four or five inches into the mud. It drove me right into the mud. The right side of my face was in the mud and I could only see out of my left eye. My left hand was pinned and my chainsaw was still idling. There I was, trapped. The tree was on me and the tree had my left hand trapped under the chainsaw. I could hardly move. It popped my right shoulder out of its socket. I could barely move my right arm. So I somehow got hold of my chalker, which is on my suspender, with my teeth, and pulled it over to the right just enough to where I could reach my safety whistle. So I started blowing as best I could. I couldn't really get a breath, but I could still blow. Just thinking about this brings back very strong memories. I blew on it and blew on it and blew on it. It's pretty loud but I couldn't really blow normally.
I was trying to push with my right foot but I could not get any leverage. I thought, 'Why can't I push myself out from under this tree?' I was not in pain, I was in shock and in fear. I thought I was going to die so I didn't feel any pain. There was so much adrenaline rushing through me. I pushed some more but still nothing happened. So I gave up pushing. But I kept blowing the whistle.
I thought, 'Where the hell is Jeff?' the guy I was working with. He was about 300 yards down the hill. I knew he might be able to hear the whistle. But 300 yards is pretty far. He was working and his saw was running.
I kept blowing, hoping Jeff could hear it. Finally I quit blowing it because I couldn't blow anymore. The pressure was increasing. I had to save some energy just to breathe. Then after a few more minutes I saw Jeff's hardhat over a knoll out of one eye. The right side of my head was still stuck in the mud.
It turned out that Jeff did not hear my whistle. He had cut eight or nine trees and ran out of gas and he heard my saw idling so he assumed I was up there walking the strip out getting ready to cut. So he filled his saw up and went back to work and cut probably eight more trees, ran out of gas, cut some more trees, and then he started thinking about it and something didn't sound right. The sound from me and my saw hadn't moved; my saw was just idling, in the same spot. Nothing was hitting the ground… That's not how I work. He knew that.
So he started up the hill looking for me. About 200 feet away he came across my hardhat. The tree hit me so hard it knocked my hardhat down the hill 200 feet. Then he knew something was wrong. By that time I couldn't blow my whistle anymore. I was done. There wasn't much brush, the area was badly burned out, but I was above where he was working and he could not see where I was working up and over a small hill.
Next thing I knew I saw him running toward me. He first tried to pull the saw away. I told him no, the tree would come down on me; it was resting on the saw which kept it from smashing me all the way. It was over me and on the saw. Jeff said, 'Coach, I have to get another saw.' I knew my saw was holding the tree up. So he had to run to his pickup a couple of hundred feet. He left to get his saw and that's when I realized my lungs were done. And I was done.
But just then I saw a vision of my grandson and daughter and my wife, their faces were looking at me, and I started wondering what I could have done differently? I saw them and wondered, 'What are you doing here? What do you want?' It gave me a little more energy to keep me alive. They were looking at me. What the hell have I done?
Then I heard Jeff's saw start up. Just then I was either going to die or pass out. Jeff cut about 15 feet of the top of the tree off about four feet past my head and that change in balance raised the tree. All of a sudden I could breathe. Then he moved to five or six feet below me and cut another section and rolled the tree off me. I rolled into his lap and started bawling. I was really hurt. I was barely alive. But still not feeling any pain.
Jeff said he had to get help. I started to roll over on my back and he said. 'Don't move, you are in bad shape. And don't look at your foot.' He could see that my left foot was crushed and bent backwards near the ankle. The bottom of my boot was facing me. That's what I had felt against my leg, my foot was bent back against my leg. My boot was all twisted up.
Jeff took my pickup to go get help from the rest of the crew. There was no cell phone coverage from up there so I laid on my back another five minutes or so and then I started to feel the pain basically everywhere. A lot of pain.
I heard a vehicle pull up and people were yelling my name. One of the guys was Roger Wilson who helped me with football last year. He was working nearby also, down the hill. He came running up the hill and he got about three feet from me, probably 290 pounds, and the fucker fell on me! He tripped and fell right on me! I mean right on me. I was lying on my back with this large man on me and I was screaming, GET THE FUCK OFF ME! He said, 'I'm sorry! I'm sorry! I wanted to do CPR! You were not breathing! You were not moving!'
Everybody else was yelling at the poor guy, 'Get your ass off of him!'
There were other people around by that time, the rest of the crew. Roger rolled off me. And then the pain hit full blast and I started bawling again.
They got on the CB radio in my truck and contacted a logging truck about three miles out past us. They called for CDF, ambulance, firefighters. I don't know how long that took.
I told Bobby Poston — his dad owns the logging outfit — that I did not think I'd make it. He argued with me, 'Don't think like that.' And then he prayed over me.
Jeff said he heard the ambulance. So I told Jeff to take my boots off because any time you get a broken leg, the first thing they do is cut your boots off and these are $400 cork work boots. I did not want them to cut the boots off of me. So he took the boot off my right foot and then he pulled the left boot down a little bit and I said, 'Oh! That hurts!' And he said, 'Coach I cannot pull that boot off.' And I said, 'No, pull it off! You have to pull it off; or they will cut it off.' He said he could not do it without putting my foot back into its normal position. So I said, Go ahead and pull it down to normal. So he started to pull it back to normal, more or less straight. Then I told him to take the laces out. So he did that and he got ready to pull, and he said, 'Coach, this is going to hurt.' So he put his foot up against a stump. Roger and Bobby held on to my shoulders because otherwise he would pull me down the hill instead of pulling my boot off. And so he pulled my boot off. Oh! I almost passed out! It was awful! It almost took my foot with it. And it really really hurt. But I wanted to save those boots. So he got my boot off and, thank God, my foot was not in it. He said, Man, your foot is a god damned mess.'
It probably took about two hours between the time the tree hit me and the time the emergency people arrived. We were way, way in there.
One of the firefighters said he didn't understand how none of the broken pieces of wood and sticks all over the ground didn't go through me. Somehow all these shards and sticks were all over the tree that fell on me, but they missed me. I was lucky for that.
The responders gave me an IV right away and put me on a stretcher, but they did not give me any painkillers because they didn't really know what was wrong inside. I wanted water but they would not even give me water; they just wanted to get the IV going.
Amazingly, I didn't lose any blood. Not one drop of blood. Nothing had popped through the skin.
They put me in their emergency vehicle and it was a long ride out of there because they couldn't go very fast because every bump and turn gave me extreme pain. My back hurt, my ribs hurt, I was strapped in the gurney but everything still hurt. I wanted them to take the neck brace off but they refused because they have rules they've got to follow.
So they drove me down to a place where there was a volunteer fire department with a helicopter pad. The helicopter was waiting for me. When they got me in that helicopter, they finally gave me some morphine. In about 30 seconds the pain dropped away. In fact, I joked to the nurse, 'I think I can go back to work now.' She said, 'You're not going anywhere but the hospital.'
So they took me to the trauma center in Modesto. Several specialists looked at me. They put me in an MRI tube, did a full body scan. Then I was lying in some kind of air mattress bed. They were asking me personal questions, identification, etc. The doctor asked me how tall I was, I said, 6-8. He said, What? I said 6-8. He said, 'Boy that tree hit you so hard you're about 4-2 now!' I laughed and that really hurt.
The doctor said, 'Any normal person would be dead right now. But because of the shape you're in, especially for being 61 years old, that's why you are still here.' That's the first thing he told me. My muscle mass kept me alive. I was holding up a very large tree with my back. All the gym work and exercise I do kept me together.
It turned out that there was an orthopedic specialist who happened to be in the trauma center that day, working on somebody's ankle. They told me he was the best in the country, so he would take care of my ankle and foot.
They asked me to sign a Do Not Resuscitate form in case I died in the middle of the operation. I refused. I was heavily medicated and I didn't want to sign a form like that. I didn't think I needed it. I didn't think I was dying. It was like, I almost died and recovered and now you want me to sign a paper allowing you to remove life support? Now, I know it was just a normal form that I didn't fully comprehend. But I still refused. So the doctor left and came back with an x-ray and showed me my foot. 'Oh shit! Ok, go ahead.' So I signed it. But I did not want to be taken off life support unless my wife Tammy was back from out of state.
I was still in a lot of pain even with all the medications. We did not know what was going to happen. They could not touch me without hurting me.
So they explained they had to cut my work pants off, and I realized I had on some very nice sexy underwear that my wife had bought me. She told me, 'Never wear them to work!' But they had their big scissors out and were cutting the pants off. And I said, 'Please do not cut my pretty underwear off! ' And one of the doctors held up my underwear and said, 'You mean these?'
Oh Shit! My wife's going to kill me! My hand was still swollen from being under the chainsaw but I asked them for my cellphone and I dialed my wife with my swollen finger. She picked up and I sobbed, 'Tammy, I have some bad news.' And she started to cry, and she sobbed, 'What's wrong?' And I said, 'They cut my underwear off!' And there was a pause, and she said, 'I told you not to wear those to work!' The doctor was laughing and the nurses were laughing.
I was in the trauma center for four days. They put all kinds of metal in my ankle. I've got screws, nuts, bolts, grease fittings, clamps… I'm not even sure what all. My ribs still hurt. The x-rays showed I had broken five ribs and eight broken vertebrae.
I woke up after that first operation and looked over and there was my underwear all cut up, laying over the chair which they put there for me. They told me the surgery went well. I was lucky the specialist was there. They gave me more medications. And I went back to sleep.
And when I woke up the next time, my daughter Britney was there, and her boyfriend, and Jeff — all in my room. I don't know how long I slept. Britney said mom was on her way home. And I fell asleep again.
When I woke up the next time, Tammy was there. I don't know how long I was out. They told me I was anemic. I couldn't believe it. I had not lost any blood. But they told me I had lost five liters of blood. So there must have been some internal bleeding and bleeding during the surgery. They started giving me anti-coagulation shots to keep the blood flowing and prevent embolisms. I had bruising from my neck down my back, on both arms, my sides, down my pelvis, and around in front of my chest.
Next week: Recovery.