Angels in Hard Hats

What happened to motorist, Lee Risler, a 54-year-old sandal maker by trade and surfing enthusiast from Lucerne Valley, California, was an unforeseeable, unfortunate and tragic set of circumstances, to say the least. Risler became trapped upside down in his crushed van for 57 hours following what he explained was an accident caused by a hit-and-run freeway driver in the early morning hours of March 18. "It was an unlucky chain of events," Risler would later say. But, as it turns out, it was a luckier chain of events that saved his life three agonizing days later.

His dramatic ordeal began very early March 18 on his way to a craft show in Hermosa Beach where he was to meet his wife and three children. While traveling at 3 a.m. on the southbound San Gabriel River Freeway (I-605) near Telegraph Road in Downey, he was suddenly sideswiped by another vehicle. Without warning, Risler lost control of his white 1991 Ford van and it tumbled off the side of the freeway down a wooded area and into a ravine 50 feet below the roadway, uprooting trees and shrubs in its wake. His van landed crushed and upside down. Risler found himself face down inside the van with his left arm pinned between the roof of the van and heavy tree limbs, his feet sticking out the passenger window. He was covered with boxes of sandals he had hoped to sell at the craft show. Thinking surely someone had seen the accident, he waited anxiously for help to arrive. But when it did not, Risler began yelling and honking his horn with his free hand until the van's battery eventually gave out. Completely pinned between the tree and the van and unable to free his left arm, he waited.

The following day Risler rejoiced when sirens and helicopters were heard. But to his horror, they never came to his aid. They were responding to an accident farther up the road. "I was digging in the ground under me in mud and muck, and I was surrounded by ants. It was a nasty place to be for that long:' he said. "I could only see right in front of me and had sensory deprivation to the max.

Bryn Risler, 43, Lee's wife of 21 years and their three children, Rhett, 15; Elaine, 14; and Vincent, 6; waited for Risler at the craft show. When she discovered his booth had been given to someone else due to his "noshow," she made dozens of telephone calls and went to the police and filed a Missing Person's Report. She said, "In the 21 years we have been married and selling our sandals at craft shows, Lee has not missed one show. When he did not show up, I knew something was terribly wrong.

While his family waited desperately for news and kept in constant contact with the police, the hours and pain began taking their toll on Risler. He was worried more about his family than himself. He said, "I knew my kids were wondering 'Where's dad?"' He began eating toothpaste to keep up his strength and endured unbearable thirst as he lapsed in and out of consciousness.

Risler became so desperate to free his arm that he did the unthinkable. Reaching in his pocket for a pocketknife he began amputating his own fingers. "It was not such a hard decision for me to make:' he said. "My arm was already dead. It was black." When three fingers and his thumb were gone, he tried to remove his hand from under the grip of the strong tree limb pinning him, but found that the slight movement only tightened the grip the massive branch had on him. Then he starting cutting into his own arm, but was unsuccessful in amputating it when he dropped the knife.

After now being trapped over 50 hours without food or water and little chance of rescue, Risler prayed. Above and about a half-mile from Risler on the 605 freeway, it was now noon on Monday, March 20, and Ben Sepulveda, Equipment Operator and his crew members from the Florence Maintenance Yard were just finishing lunch. Sepulveda was waiting for the "litter getter," a piece of equipment to attach to the freeway sweeper he was operating. The "litter getter" catches larger pieces of litter and debris so workers can remain inside their vehicle and don't have to physically get out and pick them up off of the highway. Because lunch was over and anxious to get back to work and not waste time, Sepulveda decided to begin the sweeping operation without the "litter getter." A short while into his operation, he came upon a large piece of glass debris that would have been easily swept up by the "litter getter." Instead, Sepulveda hopped off his sweeper and on to the shoulder of the freeway to pick it up. While on the shoulder, Sepulveda's keen eye for landscaping (he had been on the tree crew for years) noticed broken tree limbs and shrubbery out of place. Suddenly, there it was, half hidden by trees: Risler's overturned van.

Sepulveda could barely believe his eyes as he ran, shaken, down to the wreckage and saw two feet sticking out the passenger door window. He yelled,"Hello! Are you all right? Are you all right? Can you hear me?" He was shocked when Risler replied, "I'm trapped! I need help!" After assuring Risler he would go for help, Sepulveda, his heart racing, rushed back to his vehicle to radio for assistance. "I told them to send the California Highway Patrol, the fire department and everyone!" Ochoa, who was close behind in the sweeping operation, was first on the scene and went immediately to Risler's aid. Sepulveda, Supervisor Norris Lewis and other Caltrans workers arrived shortly thereafter and immediately set up a lane closure in preparation for the arrival of emergency vehicles. "All of our Caltrans safety and emergency training went into action that day," said Sepulveda. "We knew just what to do as a team." Ochoa remained with Risler, offering words of comfort and assurance and held onto his feet because that was all that were visible, as Risler was covered with boxes of sandals. Ochoa said, "I began removing debris off of him and he kept telling me not to leave him. And I kept reassuring him, 'Don't worry, I won't leave you, everything is going to be all right."' Ochoa was able to get Risler's name and telephone number off of some invoices found in the van, and his family was notified immediately. When Risler began pleading for water, Ochoa asked him how long he had been trapped. To Ochoa's amazement, Risler said, "Three days."

Risler's dramatic story of survival unfolded live on local and national television. Shortly after Sepulveda's call, the Downey and Santa Fe Springs Fire Departments arrived and sprang into action. Paramedics took over for Ochoa. Soon the media arrived on the scene. Before Risler could be safely extricated, the van had to be stabilized and tree limbs and shrubbery removed. After several hours and almost bleeding to death, Risler was finally freed and rushed to Saint Francis Hospital in Lynwood in critical condition with infection and near renal failure from dehydration. "I had 57 hours of fear, pain and anxiety," Risler told reporters from his hospital bed later that week. "But I have a wonderful wife and three beautiful children that kept me going." Bryn, at his side, said, "This is a brave, brave man." But Risler said the real heroes are the fire department, paramedics and Caltrans workers who saved him. Unfortunately, doctors were unable to save Risler's damaged arm and it was ultimately amputated at the elbow.

On April 7, after five surgeries and 19 days in the hospital, Risler was finally released, to the joy of his family. A throng of cameras and reporters from every television station, as well as radio reporters, were waiting to hear from the brave man who endured the unimaginable. Nationally syndicated television shows like "Extra" and "Inside Edition" were also at the hospital during his stay and all have been following the truly incredible odyssey.

When he arrived in the hospital lobby in a wheelchair, Risler was wearing his famous sandals, his left arm bandaged at the elbow. He had only praise for the Downey and Santa Fe Springs Fire Departments and paramedics, the doctors and nurses at Saint Francis Hospital and the Caltrans workers who found him. Smiling, he thanked everyone responsible for his survival and told reporters, "I thank God for getting me out of there. I was almost a goner. My kidneys were failing and the doctors told me I was just hours from death." With Sepulveda and Ochoa by his side, he beamed, "These are the two best guys in the world right now. Ben was the first one who found me. He could have just said that someone else could have picked up that piece of litter or said he would just get it later. But because Ben did his job and went that extra yard, I am alive today."

Roy Pool, East Region Maintenance Manager, said that he believes Ben, Joe and others did what any Caltrans employee would do in the same situation. He said, "Some very fortunate events occurred which placed Ben Sepulveda at the exact location where Mr. Risler had gone over the embankment. I am very proud of the actions taken by everyone involved in getting emergency medical aid for him. Norris Lewis, the supervisor, and the entire Florence Road Crew, responded in a very timely and professional manner to secure the scene for the paramedics and fire department to extract Mr. Risler from his vehicle. I would like to recognize all the team members, including Norris Lewis; Ben Sepulveda; Joe Ochoa; Socorro Pacheco, Equipment Operator; Richard Hernandez, Leadworker; Conrad Saenz, Equipment Operator; Roland Moore, Maintenance Worker; Jackie Bagley, Maintenance Worker; and Art Dominguez, Maintenance Worker. This unfortunate incident has shown what Caltrans employees really are dedicated to helping others."

Risler, grateful to be alive, may have lost his left arm, but not his smile, spirit and his positive outlook. Anxious to be fitted with a prosthesis, he remains optimistic. "My doctors brought in an electronic-elbow prosthesis and attached it to my right arm and showed me how, when I flex my muscles, I can make it go up and down. I am really excited to see how it can work for me," he said. Doctors are hopeful he will have 90% mobility of a real hand and arm. Trauma surgeon Frederick Stafford, said,"His prognosis is very good overall. He's not looking at this as a disability... more from a standpoint of life than a standpoint of loss." Risler is thrilled at the thought of being able to return to work making sandals and to indulge in his life-long love of surfing. He added, "If I can spread a little cheer; I am happy to do it."

Assemblywoman Sally Havice recently recognized Sepulveda and Ochoa, and the entire Florence Maintenance Road Crew by presenting them with Certificates of Recognition at a special event at the Florence Maintenance yard.