Idaho Falls Fire Department Battalion Chief Lance Johnson was dumbfounded when he arrived at the scene of a rollover crash in the foothills southeast of Idaho Falls on Monday night.
That’s because the 21-year-old driver — who was partially ejected and had been pinned under the truck for a couple of days before he was discovered — was not only alive, but also responsive.
“I’ve been on about 20 years and I’ve never seen anything like this,” Johnson said.
The crash is believed to have occurred sometime Saturday night in the area of Taylor Mountain Road and Henry Creek Road.
Joe Rightmire was apparently driving on a narrow gravel road when, he told Bonneville County sheriff’s deputies, he swerved to avoid another vehicle and went off the road.
The pickup went down a ravine and into a small but deep creek bed. There was some water in the creek, but luckily, Rightmire didn’t land in it, Johnson said. There were also trees and brush in the area that protected him from direct sunlight.
“He was dehydrated, but not at the same rate (he would have been in an) open field,” Johnson said.
While the trees helped him, the location of the crash also made it difficult for anyone to see him. He wasn’t visible from the gravel road.
“He went over an embankment, down a ravine into a creek bed with trees. You (basically would have) had to hike down on top of him to see him,” Johnson said.
Still, friends and family had reportedly been looking for Johnson and, thankfully, one of them found the pickup.
Emergency dispatchers received a call about the accident at 7:45 p.m. Monday, and Bonneville County Sheriff’s Office and Idaho Falls Fire Department personnel quickly responded to the scene.
Johnson said he responded along with an ambulance and two engine companies, one of which brought a heavy rescue truck with specialized rescue and extraction equipment.
The creek bed wasn’t much wider than the truck and it didn’t give rescuers much space to maneuver in, but they were able to inflate some high-pressure airbags under the vehicle to lift it up, Johnson said.
The vehicle had pinned Rightmire’s shoulder to the ground.
“He wasn’t able to eat anything or drink anything,” Johnson said, adding that Rightmire couldn’t call anyone either. “I can’t imagine what the poor guy went through in two days of being pinned there.”
Luckily, Rightmire was pinned in such a way that he could still breathe.
“He was conscious and talking and able to give us information about his condition as we performed the rescue,” Johnson said.
Responders got Rightmire out of the ravine, back up onto the road and prepared for transportation. A Life Flight Network helicopter was able to land in a nearby clearing.
Johnson says it was less than a couple of hours from the time they received the call to when they were able to load Rightmire into the helicopter. And he’s grateful that they were able to help him in time.
“It always feels good to perform a rescue,” Johnson said, adding that it was especially good to know that Rightmire was going to be OK even though he had been there for so long.
Sheriff’s office Sgt. Bryan Lovell agrees. Although it’s not uncommon to have to rescue people who’ve been stranded in the backcountry or injured in a crash, he couldn’t recall any other recent incidents with circumstances similar to what Rightmire went through.
“Whenever we can (instigate) a rescue instead of a recovery, that’s a good day,” he said.
Lovell urges people to do everything they can to protect themselves in such an emergency, especially if they’re headed into the backcountry where it may be a while before someone finds them. He says it’s important for people to let someone know where they’re going and when they plan to return.
People should also think about what they will do if they break down or crash or become injured and plan accordingly, taking appropriate gear with them.
“A lot of times, a little bit of planning can make a difference between survival and non-survival in this (type of) emergency,” Lovell said.