'It was just a miracle' - Hunting accident reveals value of radio hams to save lives

<I>ALEX PAJUNAS photo</i><BR>The face of Karl Hauer, a Hillsboro resident who grew up in Astoria, is marked by the path of a bullet accidentally fired during a deer hunting trip off Oregon Highway 202 near Simmons Field on Oct. 6. The path of the bullet traveled through the left side of Hauer's chest hitting his lower left jaw, grazing his left brow and just missing his eye.

The gun went off, and Karl Hauer fell to the ground.

Beside a pickup full of hunting gear, his brother Dan stood in shock.

"I heard the shot," Astoria resident Dan Hauer recalls, "but it took me a while to comprehend what actually happened."

The group of four hunters had just moved to a new spot in the woods off Oregon Highway 202 near Simmons Field, where they hoped to bag some deer Oct. 6. While he was arranging gear in the truck bed, Karl set the butt of his hunting rifle beside a downed tree and rested the muzzle against the truck.

The hammer, which releases the trigger, was locked down - "completely seated," Karl said later - but when he grabbed the gun to pick it back up, it caught hard on a branch and sent a bullet blasting straight up through his chest and lower jaw.

The impact knocked him down and filled his mouth with blood and pieces of bone and teeth.

Moments later, his brother rushed to his side.

"I was lying on the ground, drowning on what was left of my face," Karl said. "I looked into my brother's eyes and thought: 'Is this really happening?'"

The bullet left a large flesh wound on the left side of Karl's chest before exiting his body and hitting his lower left jaw. But it missed his upper jaw on its way up and just grazed his left brow bone.

He was lucky.

"It's just a miracle how it happened," Dan said. "It just missed all the organs in his chest. Had the angle been a little bit different, it would have been a lot worse."

Both brothers grew up in Astoria and say they have been known to pass out at the sight of a paper cut.

But out in the woods, six miles up a pot-holed logging road, and 18 miles down Highway 202 from Astoria, "We didn't have time to stop," Dan said.

Not knowing how much damage the bullet had done, Dan and family friends, Abiel Buenrostro and Anjee Taylor, gingerly loaded Karl into the back of their Jeep.

Karl used his left arm to contain his chest wound and Taylor pressed a towel to his face.

Then, with Buenrostro in the driver's seat, they took off as fast as they could safely go down the waterlogged gravel road.

They wanted to call an ambulance, but there was no cell phone service to be found - even as they got closer to the highway.

"Now what do we do?" Dan remembers thinking. "Then I remembered I had my dad's amateur radio."

Dan and Karl learned early in life to take extra precautions when going out into the woods. Their father, Ed Hauer, works with the Clatsop County Sheriff's Search and Rescue team; he and Dan are licensed ham radio operators.

"Initially, we couldn't hear anything," Dan said. But at the peak of a hill, he tuned in to a signal from Gearhart amateur radio operator Loren Wohlgemuth, who then called 911 for them.

"It was phenomenal," said Karl. "We were still bumping along the logging road when I remember hearing them on the radio saying 'help is on the way.'"

"It was such a huge relief to us," said Dan. "I thought, 'Things are finally starting to go our way.'"

They were still only a few miles from the accident site, though, and the radio signal cut out as they drove into a valley. When they could, they gave Wohlgemuth updates on their location.

Meanwhile, Dan, Taylor and Buenrostro kept talking to Karl. They'd ask him how he was doing and he'd respond with hand signals: thumbs up or thumbs down.

Through choking bouts and discomfort throughout the drive, Karl said he prayed and tried to stay calm.

"People are helping. God's in control," he told himself. "Just don't go into shock."

Karl stayed conscious throughout the drive. At the Klatskanine Fish Hatchery, the Jeep met up with a Clatsop County Sheriff's deputy, who led them to an ambulance and medical technicians at the Olney-Walluski Volunteer Fire and Rescue station.

Wohlgemuth's help shaved valuable minutes off the emergency response time, said Ed Hauer, who's learned from countless missions searching for the lost and injured that there's a "golden hour" after any incident. "If you make the right things happen in that golden hour," he said, "your chances of surviving are greatly increased."

Dan said other than the gunshot, a lot of things went right that day.

"Everything that needed to happen happened in the timeframe we needed to get treatment," he said.

Dan said he didn't know how severe Karl's injuries were until he saw the emergency response personnel cut his raincoat off to reveal a gaping chest wound.

Karl was taken to Columbia Memorial Hospital, where he was stabilized and sent via ambulance to Legacy Emanuel Hospital in Portland.

He'd left for the hunting trip at about 9 a.m that morning. At 11 p.m. doctors began a nightlong effort, involving several surgeries, to close up his chest and repair his shattered jaw.

The bullet knocked out five of his teeth and left him with dozens of staples in his chest, a titanium plate in his jaw, nerve damage on his left cheek and some hearing loss from the sound of the gunshot. But his recovery has been swift. He was released from the hospital Oct. 18.

In retrospect, Karl said, he could have employed all three of the safety mechanisms built into his rifle instead of just one. The accident was "just dumb luck," he said, "but it definitely could have been prevented."

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