Will Power + Training + Creative Problem Solving

by Al Siebert, PhD

THRIVEnet Story of the Month - January, 1996

On Friday, September 10th, 1976, John Vihtelic finished his first week of training with a company in Portland, Oregon, that had hired him to be their mid-west field representative. The company had no weekend plans for John, so he borrowed a company car, a 1975 Mercury station wagon, and drove to Mt. Rainier in Washington on Saturday morning.

John had been a medic in the Green Berets. Now in his early thirties, was in excellent shape. Six feet tall and weighing 190 pounds, he jogged most evenings and rode his bicycle up to 200 miles on weekends. He hiked to the 9000 foot level on Mt. Rainier, looked around, and saw Mt. Hood in the distance. He impulsively decided to climb Mt. Hood the next day.

He was back at the car by four o'clock. After stopping for a quick sandwich, he set out to drive directly to Mt. Hood on unpaved roads. By sunset, at about 7:30 p.m., he was driving near Mt. Adams on a gravel road above a narrow ravine. Soon after crossing a short wooden bridge his front tire hit a washed out place at the side of the road. He lost control. The car went over the side. It plunged and rolled all the way to the bottom, about 175 feet down.

When John regained consciousness he was puzzled to see that the car's overhead light below his face. The car was upside down. The driver's seat was above him. He heard the sound of rushing water nearby. He was frightened, but he remembered his training. Remain calm. Check the medical condition. Get organized. Make a survival plan.

He felt his body for injuries. He seemed to be OK, but he could not move his left leg. He looked around. His left foot was pinned under the car's metal dashboard by a tree root that had smashed up through the windshield. He tried to pull his foot out, but he couldn't budge it. The weight of the car was mashing his foot into the root.

He would be rescued soon, he assumed, but he was getting cold. The temperature was about forty degrees. He put on another shirt and his windbreaker. Then he wrapped his sleeping bag around himself as best he could.

Sunday morning he felt severe pain in his foot. He wasn't a religious person, but now he prayed. He yelled "Please, God, help me get out of this car so I can live!"

Once in awhile he heard a "thump-thump" far above him. It was the sound of a vehicle going over the wooden bridge. His car horn wouldn't work. The next time he heard the "thump-thump" he yelled and screamed for help. Enduring the pain that twisting around caused him, he stretched his head out the window and looked up. He could see barely see the top of a car on the road above. That meant anyone looking down could see him. It was just a matter of time until he would be rescued.

The pain in his foot and leg worsened. He saw an "L" shaped tire iron at the back of the car. Using his tennis racket he pulled it over to him. He wedged the tire iron into a space between the dashboard and the root. He pushed down on the iron and pressed his back up against the car seat above him. Blinding pain shot up his left leg through his groin. He almost passed out. That wasn't going to work. He heard "thump-thump" again. Screaming at the top of his lungs he reached out and pounded the tire iron on the car frame. The car didn't stop. He cried, but quickly made himself stop. He had to avoid "give-up-itis," a condition he had learned about in training films.

His position in the car was like that of a sprinter crouched down, ready to start a race. The pain in his leg was so severe that he could sleep for about ten minutes at a time. On Monday, the pain in his foot and leg was worse. This was the day rescuers would come. He would be missed. A search party would find him.

For a signal to searchers he took his bright rugby shirt and flipped it into the upturned bottom of the car. But what if it took them a few days? He knew he could last for several weeks without food, but he must have water. The edge of the stream was about fourteen feet away with a large old log at the edge. He pulled wires out from under the dashboard and tried to get water by throwing a pop can into the stream. The wire broke.

On Tuesday, he wondered what he would do if no one came. He could die here! He reviewed his situation. If he could get water he was sure he could last for two weeks. If no one came by then, he would have to cut his foot off. He knew the procedure from his paramedic training. He would not die here! He would cut off his foot before he did! His first priority, however, was to find a way to get water.

He got more wires and rolled a t-shirt into a ball. With practice he was able to hit the stream. He pulled the dripping t-shirt back to the car. This will work! He threw his t-shirt into the stream again and again. He drank his fill. Getting water every waking hour had to be a disciplined activity. Fearing that he could become delirious and forget to continue his water routine, he made a chant that he repeated over and over. "Seven wraps of the string, throw as hard as you can, lots of loft and over the log!"

Wednesday, Thursday, Friday. Each day he prayed "Please, God, help me get out of this car so I can live!" Then he started his water ritual. "Seven wraps...." His unbroken routine was to get water ten times an hour. When he heard the thump-thump he yelled and hit the car with the tire iron. He could see the roof tops of cars and trucks when they went by. Why didn't anyone see him? Where were the search parties?

Saturday, Sunday, Monday. Each day John drank his water, prayed, and washed himself. Over the weekend there had been lots of cars. He had yelled and banged the car with the tire iron. He flashed his rear view mirror toward the road when the afternoon sun was on him, but no one heard or saw him.

Friday, day thirteen. He concluded that his plan to stay alive until rescued was not going to work. He said to himself "I am going to get out of here! I know it!" He tried prying at the dashboard with the tire iron in different places. Nothing worked.

Saturday evening, day fourteen. John made himself look at everything with fresh eyes. He looked at the tire iron. It was designed to loosen hubcaps and unscrew lug bolts. The end was beveled! It could be used like a chisel! A chisel hit with a hammer could chip away at the wood root!

Sunday, day fifteen. John worked all day throwing out a suitcase half to drag a heavy, flat-headed rock within reach. He reached back and placed the beveled edge of the tire iron against the stump. With the other hand he hit the end of the tire iron. The sharp edge punched deeply into the root. This was going to work!

Monday, day sixteen. John dragged a sturdy piece of wood into the car and wedged it between the dashboard and the ground. This would prevent the dashboard from dropping down on his foot again. He worked hour after hour, steeling himself against the excruciating pain he felt each time he twisted around to chip away at the root.

At noon on Tuesday, the seventeenth day, John reached the top of the ravine and stopped the next truck that came by. The driver gave John a sandwich and drove him to the Trout Creek ranger station.

John survived because of his powerful will to live, his paramedic training, and his disciplined actions, and his continual, creative searching for a way to survive. His lower leg had to be amputated. His new life included being a consultant to a bicycle company's development of a special pedal attachment for amputees.

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