Staring Down a Sawmill Chipper With Two Seconds to Live

Suddenly, young Ron Gillis was being pulled, inexorably, toward the whirling blades of the sawmill's chipper. What possible chance of survival did he have?

July 1976 RD ClassicsThe accident occurred on May 16, 1975, at a sawmill near Long Creek, in east-­central Oregon. Ron Gillis, 23, tall, broad­ shouldered and heavily muscled, had taken a job there three weeks earlier, at least in part because the mill stood on the edge of the Mal­heur National Forest, and thus brought him close to the outdoors he loved so well. Restless and ener­getic, Ron found his contentment in fishing and in long, solitary hikes through the mountains. Like many other young men, he could not de­cide what he wanted to do with his life. He had dropped out of college and tried several jobs. Nothing seemed to satisfy him.

On the evening before the accident, Ron visited the home of his brother-­in-law, John Garinger, who also worked at the mill. The talk soon turned to the sawmill. Ron disliked his job, which involved operating a “chipping” machine—an extremely powerful device with eight whirling, 14-­inch blades that chewed junk timber into one-inch chips. He enjoyed hard work, but running the chipper was tedious. The only effort required of him was to push back logs rising out of the trough that conveyed them from the mill build­ing to the chipper, and to remove pieces of wood that jammed either that conveyor or the conveyor that carried chips from the machine back to the mill building. The only reason Ron hadn’t quit was that the mill owner had agreed to switch him the following week to a more demanding job.

The next day, a Friday, was Ron’s last on the chipper. Around 2:15 p.m., he was working the detested machine and looking forward to the mill’s closing in less than two hours. Suddenly, the chip conveyor stopped; a knot of wood must have escaped the blades and stalled the belt.

Ron pushed the buttons that turned off the main conveyor, which happened to be empty of timber at the moment. He saw no need to turn off the chipper itself.

To reach the chip trough, which was too high for him to clear from ground level, he stepped up into the timber trough, gaining an addi­tional foot of height. He checked first for pieces of wood among the small chips, but found none. He then checked several electrical con­nections. They were in order.

Still standing in the main trough, he pressed a button he thought was an alternate for starting and stop­ping the chip conveyor. It was not. Instantly, the belt on which he stood jerked into motion, flinging him down on his back. Eight feet of space, perhaps two seconds of time, separated his feet from the whirling, razor-­sharp chipper blades. In an in­stantaneous reflex action, Ron grabbed the side edges of the steel guard that protected the chipper operator from pieces of wood that might backfire from the machine. In the same moment, he shot up his legs vertically. Staring between the “V” of his raised legs, he saw the flashing blades spinning no more than three inches from the seat of his trousers.

The moving, plastic conveyor belt tried to push him into the chipper as it slid roughly beneath his back. At the same time, the steel­-nubbed feed roller, a device capable of shov­ing 400­-pound logs from the belt into the chipper blades, caught spasmodically at his two-inch-wide trouser belt, trying violently to loosen his grip on the side guard.

For perhaps two minutes, the struggle between man and machine was stalemated. Ron felt a terrible strain on his arm sockets. He thought of calling for help, but knew that his cries would be drowned out by the ferocious, over­whelming roar of the chipper. He knew, too, that at any second the men inside the mill might start throwing timber into the conveyor. The first log coming down the belt would butt him into the rotating blades.

With the wind from the whirling blades fanning his legs, Ron moved his left foot slightly to one side, and felt a piece of metal projecting from the chipper housing. If he could wedge his toe against it, the leverage gained might enable him to push backward, away from the feed roller. Perhaps he could then throw a leg over the 22-inch-high side of the trough and roll out to safety.

He carefully pressed his toe against the metal. What happened next remains unclear. The chipper blades may have caught the heel of his shoe, or his toe may have slipped off the metal. He felt no pain or other sensation. All he re­members is suddenly being lashed with pieces of bone and tissue, and blinded by his own blood.

He continued to struggle, never loosening his grip, never slipping from full consciousness. Then, un­accountably, he felt free to move. He arched his back, lifting his buttocks clear of the feed roller. He slid his hands down the steel guard and grasped the edges of the trough. Still blinded, he pulled himself several feet back from the chipper, then tried to push himself erect. He couldn’t get his legs to work.

He tried to hoist himself by his arms. It required several attempts, but finally he was off the moving belt and sitting on the rim of the trough. He ran a forearm across his face to clear his eyes.

He looked down. He had no legs—only stumps that terminated a short distance below his groin. Blood was squirting out of his thigh arteries. The machine had won; it had taken his legs.

For a moment, Ron considered falling backward onto the belt and letting the chipper complete its de­struction. Then he felt a rage—at the machine, at the switch he had punched, at the horrible loss he had suffered. No, dammit, the machine would not win. He had gotten free of it. Now he was going to live. He reached up with a hand and pressed the button that turned off the con­veyor belt. At the same time, he turned off the chipper.

Balancing himself on the edge of the trough, he reached down with both hands and stanched the flow of blood by jamming his fingers against the spurting arteries. He felt himself getting dizzy, and saw black spots drifting erratically before his eyes. He knew he must not lose con­sciousness; if his hands dropped from the stumps, he would hemor­rhage to death.

He saw someone running toward him. Then a voice said, “Oh, my God,” and he heard the sound of vomiting. He started to black out, but shook it off.

Inside the main building, John Garinger heard a millwright shout something about the chipper. To John, “chipper” meant Ron, and he sprinted from the building.

Reaching his legless brother-­in­-law, he cried, “What can I do? What can I do?”

“The pain!” Ron shouted.

John whipped off his leather apron and immediately tied its apron string around one stump. A few minutes later, a man with a first­-aid kit applied a tourniquet to the other stump. Outside the mill building, there was an ambulance to which another man ran for help.

Ron lay on his back, staring at the sky and breathing heavily. As the tourniquets were tightened, his pain quickly grew intense. He groaned, rolled his head from side to side, and pleaded, “It’s the tourni­quets! Take them off!”

“I can’t!” John said. “You’ll bleed!”

Ron swung over on his abdomen, yearning desperately for the obliv­ion of unconsciousness. A mill­ hand, apparently assuming that Ron had passed out, whispered, “There’s no way he’s gonna make it.” Ron turned his head. “I’ll make it!” he shouted. “I’ll make it! You think I got out of that damn chipper just to die?”

Within a few minutes, two am­bulance attendants lifted Ron onto a stretcher, loaded him aboard, packed his stumps in ice, and headed for the nearest hospital, 40 miles away.

Two and a half hours later, having been transfused with seven pints of blood, Ron underwent surgery to close his stumps. And 18 days after the accident, he was taken to his parents’ home in La Grande, Oregon. During his hospitalization, and for several weeks after his return home, he had frightful nightmares about death. Each time he awoke from the terror thinking that perhaps the chipper might have been a night­mare, too. He reached for his legs, and knew the truth.

During the next nine months, Ron was fitted with artificial legs at a state rehabilitation center and trained to walk on crutches. It is still difficult for him to wear his pros­ theses for long periods; his stumps have remained acutely sensitive, and the pressure causes severe pain.

He has been meeting regularly with vocational­ rehabilitation coun­selor Charles Foxx, trying to get a focus on his future. “Ron has done a tremendous job in handling a devastating experience,” says Foxx. “In seconds, he went from independ­ence to dependence, from being able­bodied to being terribly disabled. But he has never shown self­ pity or bitterness.”

Within a few months of the acci­dent, Ron was fishing from his wheelchair. He plans to buy a three-­wheel motorcycle and take once again to his beloved mountain trails. He will return to college this fall.

“What happened was a tragedy,” says Ron. “For the first couple of months, I was often depressed and angry. Charlie Foxx told me that the accident must have given me something in exchange for all that it took away. At the time, I didn’t need to hear that kind of junk.

“But something has been given. Before the accident, I had no partic­ular goal or ambition in life. No way, I want to work with people, to become a vocational counselor work­ing with the handicapped. The acci­dent knocked me out of my old world and forced me to look at a world that had never interested me. I think I can make something of myself in that new world.”

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