March 10, 2010 in City

Gruesome accident in lentil bin can’t stop DeSmet man

By The Spokesman-Review
 
Colin Mulvany photo

Tim Michael, who lost part of his leg in an industrial accident near Farmington, Wash., holds a carved wooden foot a relative brought him at Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center on Monday.
(Full-size photo)

Tim Michael smiles a lot for a guy who just lost his leg to a gruesome industrial accident. “I’m in love with life,” he says. “That’s the truth.”

It was two weeks ago that Michael reported for his morning shift at BNP Lentil Co. He’d been at the job for a month in Farmington, a small town some 55 miles south of Spokane.

He went right to work, crawling through a small door to get inside a lentil storage bin, a round metal building 60 feet across and able to hold 5 million pounds of the dried legumes grown by area farmers.

He needed to move a piece of machinery called a sweep auger, which helps gather and bunch lentils toward a floor hatch where a much larger auger spins like a huge corkscrew to push lentils into a different building.

As Michael moved equipment, he stepped backward and into the open hatch. The big auger underneath grabbed his foot and dragged him to the floor.

He quickly put his arms to his side and used all of his strength to pry his leg out of the hatch and auger. “Then I heard this loud pop and my body flung backward and hit the back of my head on the floor,” he said.

That pop was Michael’s foot and lower leg muscles getting ripped off by the auger.

He kept his cool. He had spent most of his adult life working as a logger. As a tree feller who worked in the woods, he had sat through numerous safety classes that taught him what to do if he sliced open a big leg artery.

“You might lose your leg, but you can save your life if you think about it,” he said.

He looked down at the pulp that had been his left leg and thought, “ ‘Whew! I am not going to die today.’

“I wasn’t bleeding that bad. I knew I didn’t need a tourniquet … and that I could live if I could get some help.”

But there was another problem: The smaller sweep auger was still running and had landed in his lap. It was chewing up his jeans and cutting into his legs.

All Michael could do was feed his hands into the auger, driven by a four-horsepower motor, and stop it from turning.

He gripped the sweep auger and once again summoned all his strength. He held it still until smoke poured from the engine as it overheated and quit.

After he untangled himself, he tried to walk the 60 feet across the bin to the small door because his cell phone – which he kept in his shirt pocket – didn’t work inside the structure.

Stepping on the raw bone was “too soft and painful,” he said, so he rolled himself across the floor of the bin until he could reach outside the door and send a one word text message – “HELP” – to his buddy working in the office.

About the same time another friend, Johnny “Red Label” Walker, began worrying about how long Michael was taking to finish the quick chore.

“I started to go check on him when I heard him screaming,” Walker said. “I crawled in there and just about lost it. It was about the grossest thing I’ve seen in my whole life.”

Walker said Michael was calm and wanted a drink of water and something to ease the pain.

“I’ve known him my whole life and I knew he was tough … but what he did, having to pop himself out of that son of a bitch. No way.

“I kept thinking … he’s going to lose his leg for $9 an hour.”

Emergency crews used a saw to cut a big hole in the bin to drag Michael to a Northwest MedStar helicopter. He was brought to Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center, where he’s already undergone six surgeries with a seventh scheduled this week. After his wound is healed he will be transferred to St. Luke’s Rehabilitation Hospital for a prosthetic leg.

Dan Bruce, an owner of BNP Lentil, said Michael was the victim of a freak accident. It was the first serious accident in the business’s 30 years of operation.

“Everybody hopes the best for him,” Bruce said, adding that Michael can have his job back when he’s ready.

Michael said everybody has treated him well and he doesn’t plan on letting an artificial leg get in life’s way.

He’s a North Idaho logger by trade and revels in the rough stories and lifestyle that go with one of the world’s most dangerous jobs.

He recalls broken bones and knocked-out teeth with fondness and employs a belly laugh that keeps a room loose.

His uncle Roy “Punk” Michael underscored how traumatic it must have been by using a chain saw to carve a foot from a cedar log as a memento of the accident.

“You can’t ask for better people,” said Michael, who hails from DeSmet and goes by the nickname “Puddin’.”

He said he is surrounded by too many good people to die yet.

“When I was lying there on the floor I asked myself, ‘Do you want to live? Are you happy? Do you love life?’ ”

The answer to each question?

“Yes.”

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