January 2016 - Athlete Profile
By Dave Kraus
Residence: Old Chatham
Occupation: Insurance Marketing and Sales
Sports: Cycling, Skiing, Hiking
“Whoever you pray to, you better start praying to them now, because we’re not sure we’re going to be able to get you out of here alive.”
The words from firefighter Michael Dorkings rang in Pete Buccinna’s ears for a moment before they were carried away on the biting Adirondack winter wind on January 16, 2007. It was foggy, almost dark, and the temperature was already below zero and headed down. Pete was lying at the bottom of a 400-foot slide on the side of Saddleback Mountain, south of Keene Valley, and he was hurt. Hurt badly.
His rescuers couldn’t tell exactly how badly he was injured because he was wrapped up in every piece of clothing they could find. He had a black eye and bloody nose from being hit in the face by his own knee. He couldn’t walk, and the pain in his left knee was excruciating. But at least he wasn’t bleeding. One of the firefighters had put a hand under his clothes and been unable to feel any blood.
It was not the way he had wanted this trip to end.
Up until then it had been a typical hiking trip for Pete, who had moved to the Capital Region in 2004, and just gotten married the previous September. At age 32, he was an outdoors veteran who already had multiday backcountry trips under his belt in a variety of terrain, from Death Valley to Denali in Alaska – and many other backcountry spots.
He had been invited by friend Brian Merriam, 45, of Schenectady, on the four-day, three-night camping and hiking trip, staying at Camp Peggy O’Brien near Keene Valley. Pete remembers getting the invitation and thinking, “That’s great, I’ve never stayed at Camp Peggy.”
The plan was to hike in on day one, set up camp, and attempt Marcy on day two. Then they would climb Saddleback on day three, break camp, and hike out on the fourth day. After arriving, they decided to reverse the order and do Saddleback first. Accompanying them were Brian’s 18-year-old son, Tyler, and his friend, 17-year-old Matt Stoker.
All were experienced in the outdoors and winter camping, so this would be a challenging but fun trip. Despite a mix of snow and rain, they hiked into Camp Peggy and got set up on January 15. Early the next morning they started up to Saddleback on the Ore Bed Trail that climbs Saddleback and Gothics. They would hike to the T-intersection in the saddle between the two peaks, then turn right to reach the Saddleback summit.
The ascent was steep but uneventful, and they had lunch on the summit at about 2:30pm, where the wind was blowing in an icy fog, and temperatures were between five and 10 degrees. They posed for a few pictures, packed their gear, and began the four-mile descent back to camp.
Soon they were met by three other hikers going up the trail. New York City firefighters Michael Dorkings, John Hand, and Joe Garafolo were also going to Saddleback. Incredibly, Tyler Merriam recognized them as the same firefighters who had helped him and his grandfather on a different winter hike when they became lost nine years before. The group chatted for a while before the three firefighters continued up the mountain.
As their foursome continued down, Tyler and Matt tried out the recently purchased plastic sleds they had brought with them, sliding down the trail. Soon they reached the T-intersection and the pair decided to try the sleds on the Ore Bed Slide, an expanse of mostly open rock that descends steeply 400 to 600 feet down the slope alongside the trail.
The teens hiked up the open slide a bit, planning to slide back down to Pete and Brian. But the mixed precipitation of the day before, and the freezing night, had left an icy crust on the snow. Their sleds flew quickly down before stopping against a patch of brush and trees, a short distance from Pete, who was standing in the trees with Brian on the trail.
Tyler and Matt then continued down individually, without the sleds. Matt made it almost down to the foot of the slide, controlling his descent with his trekking poles and hands. Before he stepped off the trail toward the slide, Tyler borrowed Pete’s ice axe, so he could practice arresting himself on the way down. The loan would prove to be a fateful move by Pete.
Next, Brian stepped out onto the open slope to give it a try. Immediately he started sliding and was quickly out of sight. Moments later Pete knew something was wrong when he heard a panic-stricken Tyler screaming frantically for help. The quickest way to get down was the same way, so Pete stepped out of the trees onto the slide – and the challenging, but fun trip suddenly ended.
“I didn’t take five steps and I’m gone. That was a very bad mistake – clearly,” he remembers.
Pete was almost immediately flying down the rock face, totally out of control. After giving his ice axe to Tyler, he had only the cleats on the bottom of his snowshoes to try and stop with. He remembers staying calm, and instinctively putting his left leg out straight, pulling his right knee up to his chin and putting his full weight on the pointed snowshoe cleats to try and slow down. But it did no good. The slope was too steep, the ice too slick. He slid several hundred feet down the open rock before slamming into the bottom alongside Brian.
As Pete hit the bottom his straightened left leg absorbed the impact. The top of his tibia shattered as it was jammed up into his knee joint, and as the force moved upward through his leg his hip joint was driven into the socket, shattering the left side of his pelvis into pieces. Meanwhile, his right knee was driven into his face with the force of the impact and he came to a stop in a tangle of arms, legs and blood.
“I remember every moment of it. I was conscious the entire time.” He winces, his voice stumbling as he describes the moment. Today he still carries his souvenir collection: 15 pins and three plates in his hip, each plate held in place with five screws. Another two bolts hold his left knee together. “They’re big bolts like you would see in a hardware store. On an X-ray the left side of my pelvis looks like an erector set.”
He knew immediately he was in serious trouble. It was 4pm, it was cold, it was going to be dark soon, he was laying in the snow, and he couldn’t move. He was certain that at the very least he had a broken leg. Brian lay unconscious next to him, bleeding from his mouth, and the two boys were close by. Pete tried to move himself to get untangled and by instinct took off his pack and got out his first aid kit. Then it dawned on him that it probably wasn’t going to help much in this situation.
And then came the pain. “It was brutal in my knee, and that overcame the pain in my face, and drowned out the pain in my pelvis. I didn’t even realize I had a broken pelvis right then, because the pain in my knee was so excruciating. But I thought to myself, ‘We need to focus, we need to assess, and we need to get ourselves out of here.’”
“The only thought in my mind was that I have a guy here, bleeding in the snow, who is unconscious. I have an 18-year-old and a 17-year-old, and three NYC firefighters who I knew were descending behind us. They WERE coming by. So we took out the emergency whistles.”
Pete blew on his whistle until he was too lightheaded to continue and then told Tyler to do the same. Matt was also blowing on his own whistle. Mercifully, it wasn’t too long before they could hear the firemen yelling at them, and then suddenly they were no longer alone.
Pete recalls it was immediately obvious they were in the hands of professionals as the firefighters went into team rescue mode. They took stock of the situation and started making decisions. John Hand would attend to Brian, while Michael Dorkings and Joe Garafolo took care of Pete. Pete remembers the first thing they did was unbuckle everything around his waist and one felt down along his left leg inside his clothing. He didn’t realize it at the time, but they were checking for a compound fracture and bleeding. They told him later they knew that in this situation if he had major bleeding there would be no hope of getting him out alive.
About this time Brian woke up; bleeding, confused, and asking what was going on. The firefighters decided that John Hand would escort him back down to Camp Peggy O’Brien, while the other two stayed with Pete. Tyler and Matt would hike out as quickly as possible to their car to summon a rescue team. Soon Pete was alone with Michael Dorkings and Joe Garafolo.
They had already gone through Pete’s pack and pulled out every possible item that could help keep him warm: a bivy sack, extra layers, an extra balaclava, hat and extra gloves. It was all standard winter day hiking gear, and his attention to detail in equipment probably saved Pete’s life.
Soon he was wrapped up tight, and says he didn’t see a lot after that. But he was conscious the whole time, and he could tell it was cold and getting colder after sunset. Soon it would be pitch dark. It was then that he asked the firefighters how things looked and found out he might face the worst.
“It’s hard to hear,” Pete says slowly, deliberately, during the interview. “This is the most I’ve talked about the accident since.”
“I feel like this was my accident.” He continues, his eyes filling with tears. “This is why I don’t talk about it, because I do get upset. I did not see how I was going to survive there for any length of time.”
He stops for a few moments, then continues. “I’ve read about backcountry situations before. I knew this was the moment I was faced with, when I would either lay there and die or somehow get on my feet and walk out of there, and so I tried. I tried to get up – they lifted me up. I had to attempt this – I’ll die trying instead of just laying here.”
Each firefighter got him under one arm and lifted him to an upright position. He remembers suddenly thinking about a newspaper story he had read about a woman who broke her femur on Algonquin and walked out. He took one step and told them to lay him back down. “There was just no way. It hurt beyond my ability to even comprehend.”
So they stayed. It was dark now, below zero, and the firefighters broke off pine branches and piled them on top of Pete, using every trick they knew that might help keep him warm. They found some waterproof matches in his pack and started a fire, but it was windy and already below zero, so the smoldering blaze didn’t do much good.
They took off Pete’s watch so he couldn’t tell what time it was, and removed the zipper pull thermometer, so he couldn’t see how cold it was getting. He could hear them talking, but it was muffled. He was wrapped up in every item of clothing they could find, but today’s trip was never intended to be anything but a day hike, so it was still not enough. One firefighter sat next to him the whole time and they talked – they talked about their kids, the trips that they took, and their families.
“We talked about everything. I could hear them talking, they were talking to me, and I told them I was only married for four months . . . and I wasn’t . . . supposed to die” he said, struggling again to get the words out. “They said they were going to do their best to make sure that didn’t happen. I prayed, and I got nervous Tyler and Matt would get lost on their way out, or take a wrong turn.”
Then he heard other voices. Lots of voices. They were no longer alone. He could hear other fires being started, then flames crackling. It was at least 10:30pm. Soon NYS Forest Ranger, Julie Harjung, was sitting by his side as the two firefighters left to go down the mountain. Julie would stay next to him, with other rescuers close by, for the rest of the night, keeping him awake and talking as the temperature sank to 23 below zero.
“We talked about everything. We shared everything,” Pete remembers. “She told me all about herself. I talked about my honeymoon. At some point, someone in the group asked if they could convey a message to my wife, and I told them not to. She knew I was out there, she wasn’t expecting me back home that night, and I didn’t want her to be worrying all night, knowing there was little she could do. Our plan had been to do Marcy the next day, then head home.”
He wasn’t told, but the decision had been made to stay there till morning, when a helicopter could carry him out. The nearest spot where they could meet an ambulance was almost five miles away, and getting him down the mountain would have required passing him hand to hand down the steep slope for that distance in the dark.
Until then, he just had to stay awake. His rescuers couldn’t give him any medication because they couldn’t determine his injuries without unwrapping him, which would have meant certain death in the subzero cold. At one point, despite the pain, they helped him roll over on his side to relieve himself when he couldn’t stand it anymore.
At some point during the night, somebody arrived with hot water bottles. “They put them down into my pants. I remember being cold, and just wiggling my toes, trying my best to move all my toes inside my boots.’ My fingers were also numb and I knew I still had a long way to go. Every time I moved them it hurt, but I kept trying.”
Then later, he realized he couldn’t wiggle his toes anymore. “At that point I was expecting that my feet would have to be amputated. But at that time, you’re at the point where you’re jettisoning things to keep the boat from sinking. I was just thinking, ‘I’ll give up my toes, I’ll give up my feet. Just get me out of here.’ Those are the kind of things you do in your mind.’”
Eventually dawn came, and he was still alive. Even wrapped up, Pete could sense the light, and knew that the weather had cleared. It was going to be a beautiful, sunny day. Then, in the far distance, he could hear a motor and thought to himself, “This is it.” The noise got closer, and he realized it was just an airplane, and recalls how disappointed he was as the sound faded in the distance.
Then, after 8am, he heard another motor, and then the unmistakable thwap, thwap, thwap of helicopter blades. It got close, then faded away, and he thought, “Why did it go away? They were supposed to be putting me in it.” He didn’t know the chopper was lowering equipment that would be used in the rescue.
Then, suddenly, his eyes were uncovered and he could see the wire lift basket next to him. Five or six rescuers picked him up and lifted him into it. He remembers almost passing out, the pain was so bad. They put a heavy rubber cover over him and he was hoisted up.
Now in the noisy copter, one of the airmen kept patting him on the leg to reassure him – his left leg. “I couldn’t even hear my own screams and I went in and out of consciousness because of the pain every time he patted my leg. But he didn’t know it was my injured leg.”
Then, finally, they were on the ground at the trauma center in Saranac Lake. He remembers the exquisite agony as they wheeled him across the parking lot on a gurney, still in his lift basket. He could feel stabbing knives as the wheels clunked over every tiny seam in the concrete. Once inside, he was rolled onto a metal table and the trauma team went to work, unzipping his jacket, cutting off layers, but giving in to his insistence that they preserve the brand new Under Armor top he had bought especially for this trip.
Finally, Pete knew he was going to survive, and just cried. Then they called his wife. “I told her there was an accident, but that I was alive.” Her reaction, he remembers, was total confusion.
Then the morphine drip started, and he doesn’t recall much about the next several weeks. He remembers being taken to Albany Medical Center, seeing his wife, multiple surgeries, and leaving for Sunnyview Rehabilitation Hospital in Schenectady some days later. Ten days? Fifteen days? He still isn’t sure. What he does remember is being confused, in pain, and angry that this had happened to him.
Finally he was home, after almost a month. It would be five more months before he could go back to work between physical therapy sessions in a pool and learning to walk again, first with a walker, then with a cane. It was almost six months before he could walk unassisted.
He adds that his buddy Brent Pierce, who he calls “such a good friend,” was there through it all, taking him out for a beer or shoveling his sidewalk. Then, in August, Brent finally took him out for his first bike ride, where Pete remembers marveling at how far he had come in just eight months.
Today you’d scarcely know from the outside that Pete Buccinna was ever injured. He skis, hikes, cycles, and drove the Alaskan Highway solo for six weeks this past summer. He still keeps in touch with the New York City firefighters who helped save him, and he is getting together with them this winter so they can meet his son Jack, now six.
But he still carries scars on the inside. The interview for this story was the first time he’s spoken this much about the accident in the nine years since that frigid night. In the weeks and months after it happened, he received many requests for interviews from local and national media. He turned them all down, wanting to just move on.
But now, after having plenty of time to gain some perspective, he says he wants others to be able to learn from his experience. He also wants to thank all of his rescuers, and to apologize for the risks he took that caused them to have to take their own risks to save him on that awful, below zero night. He also wants to thank all the friends and family who surrounded him during a very difficult time.
“I’m talking about it now because it’s important for me to understand the impact that’s it’s had on my life and not ignore it. I want to let people know that in the big picture, you could be a very cautious backcountry person, but you need to also be able to have faith and trust in the people with you. Maybe now I understand how that connectivity between yourself and everybody around you really does have an impact on you in every way and the turns your life takes.”
“Thinking that you’re an island is really wrong. This accident has affirmed my personal faith and my belief, because I prayed to God that night. I was raised a Catholic and went to church. But it’s very different when you’re praying for your own life. That night I felt like I was on the hotline and I was looking for some help. And it was delivered, because everything went right from that moment when it went so terribly wrong.”
“There’s so many layers, probably many layers I don’t understand yet. This has definitely made me think about a lot of things.”
Dave Kraus (firstname.lastname@example.org) of Schenectady is a longtime Capital Region cyclist, photographer and journalist. Visit his website at krausgrafik.com.