As dangerous trees go, the mature Douglas fir was a monster.
“It grew out from a bank and it had a real wicked, good-sized branch that went off to the side,” Harry Miller recalls.
But Walter Reichel was eager to get it cut down. He’d spent the morning thinning dead trees on his mom’s 50-acre property in the Lawrence Lake area near Yelm.
Let’s just say June 2 hadn’t gone so well for him, up to that point. Then just before 10:30 a.m., it got a whole lot worse.
“I remember looking back and thinking: I’m not going to make it — the tree’s going to get me,” Reichel, 43, said from his hospital bed at the Nisqually Valley Care Center in McKenna this week. “… I knew exactly how bad I messed up when I seen that tree coming, and I knew I couldn’t outrun it — I knew.”
After it was cut, the tree spun and began falling a different direction than he had expected. He was boxed in with fencing on both sides.
He got about 10 feet before the tree fell on top of him. He was trapped. He cried out to his sons. He passed out, then woke up again. He remembers being hot and thirsty and at some point, he got fairly ticked off because nobody would give him a drink of water.
Reichel said he knows most loggers don’t live through what he experienced.
“I am super lucky,” Reichel said. “I can’t believe it myself. I broke eight ribs, my sternum and busted my pelvis in like four pieces.”
He credits being alive to some quick actions by his sons, who are 18 and 23, and his father-in-law, Anthony Jackson. After they called 911, they chained the log and used an excavator to lift it off of him.
“We did good, I think,” Jackson said. “We didn’t stand there and freak. Everybody did something.”
Miller took the call in the 17500 block of Fennel Road Southeast in his capacity as a Bald Hills Fire Department commissioner. He ended up at the scene as a first responder.
But he’d seen the dangerous tree, which had about a 28-inch diameter stump, about 30 minutes earlier. It wasn’t going to be an easy project.
“All of the indications were he should just go home,” Miller said.
When the trauma call came in, Miller recognized the address and said he knew it was either Reichel or one of his boys.
He said the tree was off of Reichel by the time emergency crews arrived. They used a pelvic wrap, which Miller describes as sort of a “medieval girdle,” to load Reichel into a medic unit. He was transported to the Cougar Mountain Airfield about 2 miles away. They only had to wait about 10 minutes for a helicopter to arrive and take him to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle.
Miller said that’s when it hit him. He’s been close to the Reichel family for decades, and considers Reichel “an adopted son.”
“Once he got on the helicopter, and started flying off, it was like, ‘Damn,’ you know?” Miller said, his voice filled with emotion. “Love this guy.”
Reichel underwent two surgeries at Harborview. He was moved to Nisqually Valley Care Center a couple of weeks ago. He grew up in Yelm, and said he’s been overwhelmed with support and visitors.
“He’s got a lot of people cheering him on,” Miller said.
Reichel said his doctors expect him to have a full recovery — with enough time and physical therapy.
“My plan is to be walking in a few months,” he said.
But it will take baby steps to get there. He said one of his legs feels like “a shark bit it off and they sewed it back on.” It throbs and is numb in places.
Surprisingly, his heart, lungs, and other major organs weren’t injured.
“The worst thing I got were some blood clots,” Reichel said. “The rest was fixable.”
So far, he’s mastered rolling over so that he can sleep on his side, and sitting up.
“I’m getting there,” he said. “… I’m getting a little stronger.”
Reichel owns Deschutes River Construction, which specializes in dirt work, demolition and logging.
Even though it almost killed him, Reichel said that tree didn’t scare him away from his work.
It was an accident. It could have been avoided, he said.
“I had some more ideas, things I could have done, but chose not to,” Reichel said. “… I knew it was going to jump up, but I misjudged how far it was going to and I thought I was going to get away with it.”
But that ugly tree, which is still lying on the ground at his mom’s, gave him a schooling on man versus nature.
He said it’s a lesson he won’t forget, and he hopes other loggers will learn from his mistake.
“Just don’t take any shortcuts,” Reichel said. “You know there’s always a tree that’s going to outsmart ya. I’m really fortunate to be alive.”