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Mike Smith has been back on the job for nearly a year, after recovering from a horrific accident during setup for a disaster training drill. (Brian Basham/DL Newspapers)

Detroit Lakes tow truck driver back on the job after losing leg in disaster drill

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Detroit Lakes Detroit Lakes, 56501
Detroit Lakes Minnesota 511 Washington Avenue 56501

Detroit Lakes tow truck operator Mike Smith lost a leg in a disaster drill gone wrong last year, but he's back at work -- thanks to a new truck, a prosthetic leg, and a lot of help from his family.

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"I've always liked to be around the sheriff's and fire departments," Smith said. "That's one of the reasons I started my wrecker business -- I love to help people."

Smith, who owns Lakes Country Towing, was named volunteer of the year on Tuesday by Becker County Sheriff Tim Gordon.

Also honored was the man who helped save Smith's life on the day of the accident -- Ryan Swanson of the Detroit Lakes Fire Department.

The accident occurred late in the afternoon on Sept. 9, 2008, the day before a large-scale disaster drill at Soo Pass Ranch.

Smith towed an old school bus into Northwoods Campground, parked it, and placed blocks under the tires.

The scenario for the disaster drill was a fierce windstorm that caused large-scale damage and injuries -- the bus was supposed to represent a camper made from a school bus. Such converted campers are not uncommon at WE Fest.

But for some reason the bus broke free of the blocks and started rolling downhill. The bus rolled into the wrecker and both started going down the incline.

Smith tried to jump into the cab of the wrecker to put on the brakes, but he only managed to get halfway in, and he was injured when the wrecker sideswiped a large oak tree and pinned him between the tree and the box of the wrecker.

Swanson said he and Smith were the only people on the scene at the time.

"I was training officer that year for the Detroit Lakes Fire Department," he said. "My whole job was to set up these scenarios with the fire chiefs in Becker County, the sheriff, and the emergency management director."

A key policy he established was that "no one is out there alone," Swanson said. "I was born and raised around heavy equipment (his father, DL Fire Chief Jeff Swanson, owns Swanson's Repair in Detroit Lakes).

"I know things can go wrong real fast."

Smith was setting up the bus and Swanson was watching, helping as he could, he said, "when the whole thing took off downhill."

Swanson found himself alone with a badly injured man pinned against a tree.

"Natural reactions kicked in," he said. "My emotional reaction didn't happen until later, it was just, 'Do what you have to do.'"

He jumped in the wrecker from the passenger side and was somehow able to move the truck and the bus -- all several tons of it -- uphill in reverse, enough to free Smith.

"I was worried abut being able to do that," he said. "I was already thinking about Plan B. If that hadn't worked, I would have used the cable from the truck to winch it back."

Once Smith was free, Swanson's main medical focus was keeping him calm and out of shock until the ambulance arrived.

"The biggest thing I was worried about -- I could tell he was internally messed up," Swanson said. "The biggest thing was to keep him from going into shock. I got him on the ground and kept him calm and kept talking to him. I knew as long as I didn't get excited, he wouldn't get excited (and go into shock.)"

Smith suffered extensive injuries, including a crushed pelvis and the loss of his left leg, which had to be amputated above the knee. He spent months undergoing surgeries and recovering at Hennepin County Medical Center.

Smith is in good health now, with his main troubles coming from 'phantom pain" from the amputated leg.

"It can still be very brutal at times," especially after the prosthetic leg is taken off for the day," he said. He gets some relief from Lyrica, an anticonvulsant drug used for neuropathic pain.

When he finally was able to come home, Smith said he had a hard time adjusting.

"I just lay around the house and moped for a while," he said, "until one day,A probably in February, (my wife) Julie said, 'It's time to get going.'"

Smith was still using a walker, he had not yet received his prosthetic leg, and he went out on a wrecker call to the scene of a car-deer collision on Highway 59.

"I got out (of the wrecker) with my walker and the State Patrol guy just looked at me," he said.

Smith got the job done that day, and "I've never looked back," he added.

Julie and their grown children, Josh, 23, Aaron, 19 and Amy, 19, have all helped out with the family towing business.

"They think it's fun to get up at three in the morning," Julie said. She does the bookwork and lends a hand with towing chores -- pulling the winch cable out into a dark field, for example.

"I was waiting to walk into a slough," she said. "I couldn't tell where it was."

A benefit at Soo Pass Ranch the month following the accident raised more than $70,000 for the Smith family's medical bills.

A chunk of that came from a Bismarck, N.D., couple who were paying back a kindness shown to them by Smith, who had shoveled them out for free after he came across their vehicle stuck in the snow in Detroit Lakes.

"If I see people stuck, I always stop to help them, you bet," Smith said.

Sheriff Tim Gordon presented plaques to Smith and Swanson at the county board meeting on Tuesday.

"Anyone there that day saw the horrific injuries that were sustained," Gordon said.

"For several months, we didn't know if Mike would be here," that's why the award was given in 2009 instead of 2008, he said.

"He lost a leg, but he gained so much recognition around Becker County," Gordon said.

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