ROCHESTER — Looking in the mirror sometimes brings tears to Andy Sommer’s eyes. It has been six months since a fiery crash on U.S. Highway 12 in Rochester burned 17 percent of his body.
The Rochester High junior’s injuries are still visible on his head, neck and hands after multiple surgeries. Sommer keeps his head shaved – for now – because of the skin grafts’ shedding.
“To come out of all of this almost the same,” he said, “is pretty amazing.”
A 17-year-old of faith, he has forgiven Steven Johnson, the driver allegedly responsible for the life-altering crash that nearly took his life and injured another Rochester man, Rob Johnson (no relation).
“It’s an accident; things happen,” Andy said. “I’m not going to hold that against him.”
His recovery is nothing short of amazing. Today – like every varsity season since his freshman year – he’s back on the baseball field for the Warriors (13-4), who are in contention for a berth in the regional playoffs for the fourth time in five years.
Getting back to the sport he loved was a key motivator in his healing process, he said.
“I wouldn’t stop at anything,” Andy said.
‘JUST A PAPERWEIGHT’
On Oct. 29, Andy called his mother, Kelly, around 4 p.m., to let her know he was coming home from school. Kelly was driving back from Chehalis with Rylee, Andy’s younger brother, who was celebrating his 14th birthday.
Six minutes later – and just 500 feet from the Sommer’s home on eastbound Highway 12 at Pecan Street – their lives were changed.
According to the Washington State Patrol, a semitruck carrying 100,000 pounds of scrap metal driven by Steven Johnson struck Sommer’s 2003 Jeep Cherokee, which then hit a 1995 Ford pickup driven by Rob Johnson, who suffered broken bones but no burns. A fourth vehicle also was involved.
Kelly Sommer received another call, this time from a detective who told her about the accident. Kelly, a cardiology nurse at Olympia’s Providence St. Peter Hospital, assessed what she could of her son’s injuries over the phone.
She arrived at the scene and saw her son’s charred and smashed vehicle, which she described as “just a paperweight.”
In tears and panicked, she saw a medical helicopter taking off from the nearby football stadium, where the Warriors were practicing for the regular-season finale against Tenino.
“It was such a horrible and helpless feeling. I thought, ‘That’s my boy up in the helicopter,’ ” Kelly Sommer said. “I didn’t know if I would see him alive at that point.”
Andy was flown to Seattle’s Harborview Medical Center, where Kelly and Sommer’s father, Rob, who was in Walla Walla at the time of the accident, were able to see him. Severe burns prevented her from holding her son’s hand or giving him a hug; instead, she found a patch of unharmed skin on his upper arm to touch.
The flames reached the hood of his sweatshirt, which led to the head and neck burns, and the heat damaged his hands before he was pulled out of the vehicle by off-duty firefighter Travis Crear.
Sommer had second- and third-degree burns on 17 percent of his body, a broken clavicle and fractured ribs.
He would spend 60 days at Harborview, missing several weeks of school and all of wrestling season. His visitors during the stay included Seattle Seahawks receiver Doug Baldwin and the Sea Gals.
Andy dropped from 147 pounds to 120 pounds. Skin grafts on each hand, his neck and head would be needed, with the skin coming from his thighs and back. Eight surgeries later, doctors told Sommer it would be years before his right hand, which suffered most of the damage, regains its full grip.
He’ll be going to physical therapy sessions for at least another year and faces more surgeries, including plastic surgery on his ears and right hand.
“It changed our lives that day,” Kelly Sommer said.
BACK ON THE FIELD
Andy returned home Dec. 28 and then to school in January. He said he slowly began to regain the weight and strength he lost while in the hospital.
Because of the injuries to his right hand – nerves were damaged, the tip of his index finger was lost and his grip was weak – doctors told Sommer it would be unlikely that he would ever be able to hold a baseball again.
Instead of wrestling, Sommer began working in the batting cage, getting ready for baseball season.
He started slowly, working on being able to just grip a bat. He advanced to hitting rubber balls, then real baseballs.
Weeks later, he showed up for the first day of baseball tryouts.
Junior second baseman Lucas Eastman has known Sommer for most of his life; the two played on several youth sports teams growing up, as well as football, wrestling and baseball at Rochester. Eastman said their friendship grew immensely since the accident, and he’s amazed at Sommer’s strength and perseverance.
“I have a lot more respect for him for what he went through,” Eastman said. “It’s amazing someone can recover that fast ... he promised he’d be back for baseball.”
As a right-handed hitter and fielder, Sommer’s inability to still get a full grip on a bat hasn’t hurt his swing. Hitting anywhere from second to ninth in the lineup, Sommer is batting .333 with 10 runs scored and 11 walks while playing center field.
Coach Jerry Striegel said players remain comfortable with Andy in the outfield, although adjustments were made. Infielders still know to move out closer on Sommer’s relay throws from the outfield.
“I don’t think anybody is afraid of whether he can or can’t get it done because he’s always done it,” Striegel said.
Sommer’s arm strength improves each day, too.
“I’m starting to almost overthrow everyone now,” he said.
Where Sommer gets his determination and willpower, his mother isn’t sure, but she knows he has always gone the extra mile.
“You ask for 100 percent, and he’ll give you 110,” Kelly Sommer said.
Meg Wochnick: 360-754-5473 email@example.com @megwochnick