Firehouse Chatter: Chipping accident victim thanks rescuers

THANKS FOR BEING THERE — JJ Hanson of Standish (fourth from the left) recently met Bridgton firefighters to thank them for their response at a tree-chipping accident on Cedar Drive in Bridgton. Pictured with JJ were firemen who responded, from left to right: Bill Morrisseau, Tim Bright, Paul Field Jr., JJ Hanson and Josh Laird. Missing was Larry Scholz.

By Jay Spenciner

I’d been feeling a bit sorry for myself lately as I’d shortly be having a total knee replacement. That would mean no driving, no fire department, no exercising, no yoga for some time. Many of the things I enjoy would be out of reach for quite a while. It’s easy to get caught up in your own situation.

We were at Bridgton’s Central Station for training one Wednesday evening when in walked JJ. Joseph (JJ) Hanson was born in Calais and currently lives in Standish. He visited with us for a while and then agreed to do an interview with me.

JS: JJ, what brought you to the fire station tonight?

JJ: When I was in the hospital, I got a list of who responded to my call. I reached out to Paul Field. I called him and said, “Do you remember responding to a call on October 6, for a tree worker getting pulled into a chipper?” He said, “Yes, I do.” I said, “Well, I’m that guy. I just wanted to say ‘thank you’ for showing up, for being there.” He told me how you guys have meetings every Wednesday here and invited me to come up.

JS: Can you give me a description of what happened?

JJ: It was Oct. 6, 2016. I was doing tree work, working as an arborist at Cedar Drive in Bridgton. We were doing some clearing. The first half of the day went great. We filled up one truck with chips and stopped for lunch. There were three of us working. One guy left to empty the first truckload. Another guy was on the tractor to bring more piles of brush to the chipper. I backed an empty truck into place to fill up. I got the chipper started back up. It caught a piece of rope; one end went into the chipper, the other end wrapped around my leg and pulled me into it. Somehow, and I don’t know how I did it, I hit the reverse bar on the chipper. It reverses the feed roller and pulls the brush back out of the chipper. Because I hit the reverse bar, it kept me from going all the way through (and being killed). The rope was still in the chipper and still trying to pull me in. The rope was getting tighter and tighter. I don’t know how I got untangled. I think the rope unwrapped itself. It ended up breaking both of my femurs and left kneecap and caused tissue, muscle and nerve damage. The most damage was on my right leg beneath the knee, which had to be amputated. I have no feeling in my left leg below the knee. I wear a special brace so I can walk on it.

JS: Is there any expectation that you may regain feeling there?

JJ: The doctors say it’s a waiting game. They said if nothing comes back in the years ahead, I may have a better quality of life if they amputate that leg as well.

JS: So you got out of the chipper and crawled?

JJ: Where the chipper was, there’s an embankment to get up to the job site. Eventually, I was able to pull myself out of the chipper. I thought that my feet had been cut off. I didn’t think I had them. I crawled on my stomach using my hands and elbows up the embankment and finally got my coworker’s attention. I knew I was bleeding really bad from my lower extremities, from somewhere. I turned myself around as if I was heading down the embankment. That way I’d keep the most blood inside me.

I have two boys, (ages) 5 and 4. They live in Vermont with their mother. At the accident, before the ambulance showed up, my kids were what went through my mind. I really didn’t expect to live, get through this. I told my coworker to tell my kids that I love them. I think I fought for them. That’s why I’m still here.

JS: So then your coworker called 9-1-1 and the ambulance, police and fire departments came. The ambulance took you to Bridgton hospital to meet the helicopter for the trip to Lewiston, right?

JJ: At Bridgton hospital, the emergency crew said they couldn’t wait for LifeFlight and took me into the emergency room before the helicopter arrived. There, I finally lost consciousness.

JS: How long were you in the hospital?

JJ: I was at Central Maine Medical in Lewiston for a month and a half and then transferred to Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston for another month and a half. So far, I’ve had 24 surgeries, been given 112 units of blood and died twice because of blood loss. I have physical therapy five days a week.

JS: By the way, how old are you?

JJ: I just turned 29.

JS: Your attitude seems so positive. How do you do it?

JJ: I’d be lying to you if I said I never got upset. I still have bad days. It took maybe two or three weeks for me to accept that this was going to be my life from now on. That was the hardest time for me. I said to myself, there’s no point in getting upset. There’s going to be good days and bad days, but there’s no point in getting upset.

JS: What are you thinking of doing in the future?

JJ: It’s been 10 months and I’ve had a lot of time to think. What I’d really like to do, I’d really like to get back into tree work to some degree. I know I’m not going to be as productive as I used to be. I’m not going to be as good at it because of injuries. I might not be able to work for another company. I might be better off doing it on my own, kind of at my own pace, what my body can handle. That’s my ultimate goal.

JS: Would you look at anything different for work, other than tree work? You said you’d been to SMCC (Southern Maine Community College) where you studied fire science.

JJ: I haven’t given much thought to getting back into the fire service. One thing I could do is I’ve got over 10 years of landscape and mechanic work experience. What I may do a couple of years from now is open up my own small engine repair shop — chainsaws, weed whackers and lawn mowers, four wheelers. I’ve got a lot of certificates in that line of work, as well as diesel and heavy equipment work. So, I might start up my own shop. That way I could work at my own pace.

JS: You said before that you were in the Scarborough Fire Department.

JJ: I was 10 years in the Calais Fire Department. When I was 18, I went to SMCC and studied fire science and instead of living in the dorms, I did a two-year student live at a fire station. I was assigned to Scarborough FD, the Black Point Station.

Meeting JJ put into perspective my upcoming surgery. His strength and determination can serve as a model for me, and likely others, as well.

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