by Dr. Jim Atkinson (Outdoor Writer-Pensicola, Florida)
His entire life has been structured around a meticulous approach to anything he is doing. He was a star athlete and class leading scholar in high school and the character traits that made him successful there carried over into college, medical school and a very successful practice until his retirement in 2000.
Dr. Bumgardner was not involved much in hunting as a youngster and did not get into bow bunting until around 1986. Like many others, the experiences of scouting, hanging stands and finally taking a deer with archery gear captivated his spirit and he was hooked for good. He approached the sport like he had every other interest in his life. He read everything he could on the subject, watched all of the videos he could get his hands on and talked with many of the leading bowhunters in his area. He became a bowhunter educator and gave seminars on the subject all over Mississippi, was active in 3-D archery tournaments and served as a member of The Mississippi Bowhunters Association Board of Directors and recently completed a two year tenure as President . In other words, he was deeply committed to the sport and approached it as meticulously as anyone could. Unfortunately, one slip up and the lack of complete quality control by a treestand ladder manufacturer almost cost him his life.
Joe is a member of a hunting lease in northwest Alabama on the Tenn.-Tom Waterway and hunts the entire deer season using archery equipment. The property offers some of the best whitetail deer hunting in the state and he looks forward to the opening of archery season every year. Over the past few years he has scouted the property extensively and erected many fixed position stands with stacking, stick style ladders in areas that show good promise of offering the chance of getting a shot. He has been meticulous in positioning the stands to take advantage of naturally occurring food sources, travel corridors and prevailing winds. This type of careful preparation has resulted in many successful hunts over the past few years. He leaves the stands in the woods from year to year but has developed a pre-season ritual of taking a few days in September each year to go to the lease, inspect each stand and stick ladder set and make any repairs needed. This includes loosening and replacing any rope, ratchet or chain, and noting/replacing any parts that are showing signs of deterioration including ‘derusting’/painting any metal parts that are developing rust spots. His pre-season stand repair trip before the 2004 season was one he will never forget and will surely make him more careful to inspect every inch of any commercially made treestand or ladder before he buys it and before each use.
This September day (Friday, September 24, 2004) was to be spent like many others. Joe would spend most of the day going from stand to stand repairing those that needed it and just enjoying the time in the woods. On these trips he takes pieces of rope, chain, paint, tape, his chain saw, limb trimming saw, hand saw, claw hammer, a hack saw and tool box with sockets, wrenches, screw drivers and oil. Anything he might need to repair stands is on his ATV.
Around 2:30 in the afternoon Dr. Bumgardner had already serviced two or three of his treestands. He was going to try and get a couple more done before leaving the property around 6:00 p.m. as he usually did. His stands are normally positioned between twenty and twenty four feet high and the one he was about to work on was no exception. Joe always uses an A.P.I. climbing belt when going up and coming down from a stand. The only unsafe time in this procedure is getting from the ladder to the stand when going up and back on the ladder when descending. His A.P.I. climbing safety strap has to be taken from around the tree and reattached to his belt while getting on or off the stand. He had climbed the ladder and was standing on two of the upper foot rungs and was holding on to the top of the stick ladder climbing section.He was in the process of clipping his belt safety rope around the tree before he actually started servicing the treestand. At this point, the commercial manufacturer’s weld broke on the stick-ladder climbing system and he was now falling virtually head first and backwards from a height of twenty two feet and his prospects for a safe landing were looking grim. Joe knew if he hit on his head and neck he would probably suffer severe crippling or paralyzing injuries or even death.
Unlike most mid-sixty year olds, Joe has kept himself in excellent physical condition and this, combined with a lot of retained athletic ability enabled him to reposition himself while falling and he landed with his right side and legs parallel to the ground.
Hitting the ground after a twenty two foot fall is never going to be a pleasant experience and after regaining the wind that had been knocked out of him Joe started trying to determine what injuries he had sustained. His biggest concern was possible injuries to his nervous system that would leave him paralyzed. A quick examination revealed that all of his fingers and toes would work and his main torso was intact. On the other hand, there was something drastically wrong with his right leg. The foot on that leg was lying flat on the ground (instead of pointing upward to the sky as the left foot was positioned).
After surveying the situation he knew his right femur was shattered and he had to get it stabilized as soon as possible. Under these circumstances, shock is always a major concern and Joe knew if he did not get himself situated as soon as possible he could be in even bigger trouble. His cell phone was in its charger in his truck back at camp. There was no cell phone service beyond the camp house because of inadequate signal strength. Even though there were other people in camp none of them had any idea where he was or that he was in trouble. It was up to him to stabilize his injuries until someone found him.
He pulled himself to the base of the tree that was housing the treestand and the faulty stick-ladder set. His A.T.V. had been parked approximately 60-70 yards away. This had been necessary because of several downed trees across the logging road. This was a direct result the recent Hurricane ‘Ivan’. Fortunately, Joe had his 18 foot extension handle trimming saw, folding hand saw, hack saw, chisel, claw hammer, and several other tools necessary to service the climbing stick sets and chain lock-on treestands. After dragging himself back to the base of the tree he had fallen from he used the claw hammer to dig the dirt out from under the bottom section of the stick ladder. When he had enough open space under the bottom section he used his trimming saw to reach up and cut the binding holding it to the tree and pulled on it until it came free. He now had a section of the ladder four feet long that could be used for a splint. Next, Joe used the hack saw to cut off the protruding step rungs of the ladder section. He laid the remaining stick section along side his leg, measured it for the splint and cut it to the proper length.
His biggest problem at this point, however, was painful muscle spasms in his broken leg. It was still badly misaligned and would need to be straightened as much as possible and set before any splint was applied.
While lying flat on the ground, Joe used all the strength and courage he could muster, and used his good left foot and leg to push downward on the top of his right foot and as he held on to the tree, he took a deep breath and pulled up forcefully on the broken leg.
The waves of nausea and pain that engulfed Joe for a short while had him on the verge of passing out several times but the clear thinking and toughness that had brought him this far prevented it from happening and soon he was able to stretch out and apply the splint be had fashioned. Using several 3-foot rope ties he had cut from the rope on his 18 foot extension handle trimming saw, he soon had his leg stabilized. With this accomplished, the muscle spasms soon subsided and he settled back to wait for someone to find him.
Joe’s pre-season trips usually ended before dark and it was customary for him to call his wife around 6:00 p.m. as he was leaving camp to come home. She did not receive a call at 6:00, 6:15 or 6:30. She tried calling him on his cell phone, which was in his truck, and when she did not receive an answer, she knew something was wrong and after summonsing the help of a neighborhood couple they drove the forty five minutes from Starkville to the camp.
After arriving at camp she discovered no one was aware that something might be drastically wrong and no one had a clue where on the property he might be. With over forty stands out from one end of the 3000 acre lease to the other, he could be anywhere. A call was made to one of the lease members who knew where a lot of Joe’s stands were but he could not shed any light on which ones he might be working on. They then made a call to the local sheriff’s department and they responded. After searching for a few hours the search party was successful in summonsing a search helicopter.
It was dark now and September in the south can be very warm and the woods are full of insects of all types, especially mosquitoes. It was obvious to Joe that he would probably have to spend the night in the woods. Setting his leg had taken a lot of the pain away. The waves of nausea had subsided and he had made himself fairly comfortable by stretching out on the ground. The mosquitoes, however, were eating him alive. His only respite was to place a surgical towel over his face and neck to keep them off of those areas but, his arms were open to their attacks.
The helicopter flew over him several times during the first part of the night but, because he was always out before dark he had not taken a flashlight with him. He did not have any way to signal them. When it flew over the last time without spotting him he knew be was in for a long night.
The helicopter was called back at first light the next morning but it was still a while before Dr. Bumgardner’s A.T.V. was spotted just inside a wood line on the edge of an old field. In short order a call was made to searchers on the ground and it was not long before the worst part of Joe’s ordeal was over and he was on his way to a hospital.
Dr. Bumgardner is a lucky man. His right femur was shattered into multiple pieces and he suffered several bruises and contusions as well as two fractured ribs from the fall. The mosquitoes took their toll on any exposed skin and the stress of being in this type of predicament overnight wore heavily on his mind. His thoughts were on his wife who must have been almost out of her mind with worry and he knew he was lucky to be alive.
This is the story of a man who meticulously approaches everything he does from surgery to using treestands. He tries his best to cover all bases to insure his safety and a job well done but, his experience on that September day in 2004 proves you cannot 100% guarantee all will go right every time you take to the woods. Joe was using a commercially made ladder (the company went out of business about three years ago) and it was one he had used many times before.What he had not noticed was on the rung that had broken away the fabricator had only spot welded it to the center section and had never gone back and completed the weld all the way around the rung and obviously the quality control officer had missed it also.
It only proves that as consumers we should closely inspect any equipment that we are going to trust with our life or well being. Dr. Bumgardner is more meticulous than most hunters. He did inspect his stands and make repairs to them each year but, even he missed this weld and it almost cost him his life.
Zoom in View of this defective commercial stick ladder
Every reputable treestand manufacturer belongs to The Treestand Manufacturers Association of America. As a member of this organization you are bound to adhere to their manufacturing requirements to insure the highest level of safety that can be expected. On the other hand, as consumers we should not automatically accept that every stand or ladder they produce is built to T.M.A.A. ‘s standards. All kinds of workers get complacent sometimes, as with Joe’s ladder, and miss a step in the production process that could cause you serious injury or even end your life. I am certain that ninety nine percent of the stands and ladders made to T.M.A.A.’s standards are safe for you to use for years. On the other hand the one percent that are not completed to their standards are unsafe and may break on their first use. They may also break after several years of use because of metal fatigue, abrasion of straps or rust. You must check all welds, chains, platforms, wooden parts, binding systems, bolts and ropes for any signs of deterioration that could result in a safety problem. If there is any question in your mind the manufacturer should be contacted and I assure you they will do whatever it takes to make their stand safe for you to use.
Dr. Bumgardner is a lucky man. Sure, he may not walk without help for several months but, he is lucky to be alive. He thought he had been very thorough in assuring his safety when in an elevated stand but, you can bet even as meticulous as he has been in the past he will be even more so in the future.