December 22, 2011

Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources
The whirring chop of the helicopter blades was an eerie reminder of an incident only months earlier when Joe Lindsey helped save the life of a young boy in the aftermath of a small-airplane crash in Guntersville. Off duty at the time, Lindsey, a Conservation Enforcement Officer with the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division, witnessed the plane go down, rushed to the scene and pulled the 7-year-old from the burning wreckage. He stayed with the youngster, who turned out to be the lone survivor, until he was airlifted to the hospital.

In October, the deafening noise from the helicopter rotors signaled another life-threatening situation. This time, it was Lindsey’s life on the line.

The 34-year-old Lindsey had suffered massive trauma after he fell about 30 feet out of his tree stand while bowhunting for white-tailed deer.

Lindsey, who has been with the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources for 8 ½ years, said the series of events that left him flat on the ground with the taste of blood in his mouth are etched in his memory, unlike others who have trouble recalling traumatic incidents.

“Unfortunately, I remember it all too well,” Lindsey said.

Lindsey and his fellow enforcement officer in Madison County, Luke Lemley, had gone bowhunting. Lindsey dropped off Lemley at his hunting location and went to a wildlife opening about a mile away where there had been a great deal of deer activity.

“I got the wind right and found what looked like a good tree,” Lindsey said. “I got my tree stand set up and by this time it was about 3:30. I realized I had left my phone in the truck. I was afraid it would be too late if I went to the truck and got it, so I went ahead and climbed the tree.”

With his harness on and climbing strap attached to the tree, he went up about 30 feet and settled in for an afternoon of hunting. After Lindsey saw several does with fawns and some young bucks, two mature does came into the field, and he shot one.

“She ran 40-50 yards and went down,” he said. “When I saw she was done, I decided to go ahead and get down and get Luke before it got too dark. The tree I was sitting in was a fairly good-sized oak. I took the strap off, which I normally don’t do. I normally keep my strap on all the time, going up and down the tree. I let my bow down, and I was going to put my backpack on. Then I was going to put my strap back on and climb back down.”

He didn’t make it that far.

“When I let my bow down, I watched it go to the ground,” he said. “When I looked up, I had a brief, dizzy blackout moment, like when you stand up too quick. The doctors said because I had been standing there about 30 minutes in a tight spot, my blood vessels had restricted. They said the rush of the blood releasing when I looked back up is what caused it.”

Lindsey quickly realized his equilibrium was upset, and he was in the process of falling out of the stand. In a split second he knew that if he fell over the tree stand’s rail that it might flip him and he could fall in a manner that would have meant instant death.

He grasped for the top of the tree stand, hoping it would catch and stop his fall, but the angle of his fall kept the stand from grabbing the tree.

“I hit the back of my head on the platform of the tree stand about the same time the top part caught,” he said. “It knocked me loopy for a brief second. I remember hitting my head and losing my grip on the top of the stand. I do remember part of the fall just before I hit the ground.

“When I hit the ground, it probably knocked me out for a few seconds. Waking up, I knew what had happened. At the same time, it was one of those unreal, surreal moments. I thought, ‘This can’t be happening to me.’ I knew I was hurt. I had blood on my face and blood in my mouth. I couldn’t move my right side. I could tell my back was messed up. I thought I had broken my back.”

Lindsey’s reaction then was to get up and get back to his truck. That idea quickly dissolved when he realized he couldn’t get up.

“I couldn’t breathe,” he said. “I had punctured a lung. I laid down on my face, kind of clinching the ground, trying to get my breath. I finally got my breath back and started to dig and claw to get out of that position I was in. I probably moved 8 or 10 feet, and I was in severe pain. My legs were working, but my upper body was in pretty bad shape.”

Lindsey glanced up to see how far his tree stand had fallen and realized his backpack was still in the tree. Inside the backpack were the keys to his truck, where his phone was.

“A million things were going on in my mind,” he said. “I was thinking this couldn’t be happening; I’ve got a little boy to raise and my wife. Everything goes through your mind that’s important to you.”

Lindsey knew he didn’t have his phone, and the keys to his truck were up the tree. He always locked the truck, so retrieving his phone was going to be difficult.

“It was one of those days where nothing went right, a series of mistakes,” he said.

He crawled 50 yards toward the truck that was between 300 and 400 yards away. He realized it would soon be dark if he couldn’t get to his feet.

“I had to make myself get up,” he said. “I pushed myself up against a small tree. I could use my left arm, but my right side was basically useless because of the pain and being broken up. I basically walked out the 300 or so yards to the truck. I was looking down the whole way because I couldn’t straighten up. When I got to the truck, I tried the door handle, and it was locked.”

Finally, however, one of the day’s miscues turned in his favor.

“I glanced up and looked at the sidewall of my truck bed, and I had left my phone on the sidewall of the truck,” said Lindsey, who called the landowner, Thomas Glover, and apprised him of the situation. Glover called paramedics, who called for the helicopter.

After assessment at the hospital, Lindsey’s injuries included eight broken ribs, five broken transverse vertebrae, a fractured sternum, a punctured lung and damage to his right shoulder.

“I worked out quite a bit before the accident,” he said. “Three doctors and a physical therapist said my age and my conditioning were tremendous factors. If not, I should have been dead.”

When it became obvious he would survive the ordeal, Lindsey, who returned to work the last day of November, then began to think about the reaction of the public to his accident.

“Being an officer and teaching hunter ed, there’s no telling how many hundreds of kids and adults we’ve taught tree stand safety to up here in Madison County,” he said. “Your first thought is this is really embarrassing. I committed the cardinal sin of taking my strap off before I got to the ground.

“But what I came away with is we’re all human. We all make mistakes. Nobody’s perfect. I did make a mistake when I took that strap off. Nobody is above something like that happening to them. It doesn’t matter if you’re an officer or instructor. No matter what you know, you’re not above having an accident.”

Instead of allowing that misstep to haunt his career, Lindsey plans to turn it into a teaching tool.

“Now when I’m teaching hunter safety and I tell them to wear the strap, I have a story to tell,” he said. “This is what happened to me. I’m very lucky, very blessed. Don’t let this mistake be your last mistake. It could have been my last mistake. I learned a lesson, and I plan to use it as a stepping stone to share my personal experience with others.

“Through all of that, I’ll tell you what really hit me. When I hit the ground, I thought I was dying. I was spitting up blood. I thought this was it; I had killed myself. Then you realize all the things that make a difference in life – why you’re here and your priorities. I’ve been in several situations where I’ve had to call in med flights for people with substantial injuries. When you’re lying on the ground and you hear that chopper coming over, and it’s for you, it puts a very vivid, surreal cap on everything that’s happened. It sheds new light on the moment. He was looking out for me that day. I guess He’s still got some things for me to do.”