Sept. 21, 2016, was supposed to be a fun day for five hunting buddies from the Glenwood area, Jason Meulebroeck, Isaac Schiffler, Nick Gugisberg, Travis McCrory and Jesse Koob.
The guys had access to an airboat and were going to take it for a ride through the swampy river area just south of Starbuck. The duck hunting opener was approaching, and the guys thought the airboat would be a great way to scout out the area.
“It was my first time in an airboat,” said Nick. “The guys had called me earlier in the day to let me know about what they were planning to do. I had other plans but changed them so I could go. Duck hunting was coming up, and I had been talking about going out there. I ran home and grabbed waders and dropped my boys off with Wendi (Travis’ wife) and we headed over to Starbuck.”
I got off work and was going to go home,” said Isaac. “Travis called and said they had room for me. I was sick that day, but I wanted to go. I had never been on an airboat before.”
Four of the five guys graduated together at Minnewaska Area High School in the class of 1997. Isaac was a year older, but also a Minnewaska graduate.
It was about 6:30 p.m. when the guys got on the boat. After finding the main river in the swamp, the guys all got on the airboat and set off.
“I could feel the wind and the power of the airboat,” said Nick. “I took my phone out and took a short video at 6:38 p.m. I had just put my phone in my pocket when the boat started to turn. I was just hanging on.”
“We were going for maybe 40 seconds with all of us on the boat,” said Isaac. “It wasn’t very long. We went around a corner and a gust of wind or something pushed us. The river was maybe 50-60 feet wide, and the boat was about 8-10 feet wide. Once the shore came, we all knew we were in trouble.”
Suddenly, all hell broke loose.
“I remember a boom, and we were flying through the air,” said Jason.
The boom was the boat hitting the side of the bank.
“I was in the front of the boat and was launched over the guys and over the boat,” said Nick. “I didn’t feel like we were going fast until we hit the bank.”
“I don’t think we were going much faster than 20 mph, but it was hard to tell,” said Isaac. “I guess we were going fast enough.”
As the five men were flying through the air, the boat was flipping.
“It flipped at least once and probably flipped multiple times,” said Nick.
“I think the boat probably rolled over all of us,” said Isaac.
What truly happened in those few moments after impact isn’t fully known, as most of the guys briefly lost consciousness.
“I remember the engine smell — an incredible heat and exhaust smell,” said Nick. “I started looking around to see if everyone was OK. I heard someone say, ‘Oh my god, his legs are gone.’ I must have flown at least 20 feet or so. It was hard to tell because the boat was flipping as we were flying.”
Moments later, Jason woke up on the edge of the riverbank.
“The first thing I remember was Nick, who was by my legs, telling me everything was OK,” said Jason.
“Jason was in a daze,” said Nick. “When he sat up, all I saw was blood on his head and ear. He was moaning. I was looking at his head, and he was just moaning. He really wasn’t really awake yet.”
Then Nick looked closer at Jason’s legs.
“He kept telling me it was not that bad, but didn’t let me sit up to see. I didn’t notice yet that my left foot was completely gone,” said Jason.
At this same time, Travis and Isaac had gained consciousness. Travis knew there was a boat located at a dock down the river. He started walking to find it. Nick told Isaac to go with him, so they both set off. Both men were injured, but nobody knew how badly.
“I felt kinked up, but didn’t know how bad I was hurt,” said Isaac. “I think the adrenaline was just so high that I didn’t think about it.”
Jesse gained consciousness and dialed 911 while Nick worked on Jason. Jesse handed the phone to Nick because he wasn’t able to talk.
“I knew right away that Jason’s legs were gone,” said Isaac. “I was laying right next to him when I woke up. I could actually see one of his legs standing up in the mud. It was a clean break.”
Nobody knows for sure how Jason’s legs were severed. It could have been the propeller, although it had a protective cage around it, or it could have been the edge of the boat running over his legs with great force as the boat tumbled.
“The right leg was completely gone, and I could see the ankle bone on the left one,” said Nick. “There was massive bleeding.”
The next few minutes were critical to Jason’s survival. His life was now in the hands of his good friend, Nick. As it turned out, he was the perfect person for the job. Nick was an Eagle Scout and had been through life guard training. His past training and natural instincts kicked in immediately.
“Nick was able to take charge in chaos,” said Jason. “I could hear him giving the first responders directions on the phone while he was getting the tourniquets on my legs.”
Jason, who had recently gone through a first responder class, also tried to help when he could.
Nick immediately went to work on Jason’s legs.
“I took my belt off right away and started making a tourniquet on one leg,” said Nick. “Jesse could hear me asking about another belt so Jason held the first belt while I got the other one. Jason kept trying to sit up to see his legs. I grabbed his shirt and told him, ‘You are not moving.’”
“He never let me look, at them,” said Jason. “I was guessing it was really bad. When I did see it later, I could see the bone. It was the whitest white I have ever seen.”
While Nick was getting the tourniquets in place, he was on the phone with emergency personnel, trying to give them a sense of how bad things were without making Jason panic. He knew he needed to stay calm and for Jason to remain calm. Nick also needed to try to give the 911 operator quick and accurate directions so first responders could find them in this remote and swampy area not accessible by an ambulance.”
“From there it was a lot of waiting,” said Nick. I was worried about Jesse. I think he was in shock. I kept asking him how he was doing. I couldn’t find any blood but he was injured internally, and his body was shutting down. Jason was worried about Jesse, too. Probably more than himself.”
“I had no pain at all at this point,” said Jason. “No pain.”
As time went by, Nick was getting concerned that the emergency crew would find them in time. And he was struggling to keep the tourniquets tight.
“After 15 minutes or so of holding it tight, I was cramping up. I couldn’t keep it tight. I had to change my grip so I could keep holding it,” said Nick. “I set the phone down. Jason held the left leg tourniquet. I let the belt off the right and switched it around so I could hold it with my knee.”
A lot of blood was lost during the maneuver, but Nick knew he had to do something.
“I have had first responder training so I was giving an assessment on myself as I was laying there,” said Jason. “As the minutes went by, I was starting to realize that we really needed to get out of there. They thought they would be able to get to me within a half hour and I said, ‘I don’t think I have a half hour.’”
“I could hear the sirens, but I was thinking that they may never find us,” said Nick.
At the same time as this was going on the riverbank, Travis and Isaac had finally reached the boat.
“I was really struggling,” said Isaac. “I bet we went 300 yards by the time we found the boat. Travis was hurt so bad that when he started the motor he lost consciousness, and the boat came around and hit him and knocked him down. We were both struggling out there.”
With time slipping away and darkness taking over, all five guys were located.
“I was tingling,” said Jason. “I don’t think I had 15 minutes (to live). I was laid on a duck boat and brought to the hospital with the ambulance,” said Jason.
The minute I saw him leave… when he left the cattails, I thought that was it,” said Nick. “I didn’t think he would survive.”
Nick and Jesse were transported in a different airboat from Douglas County.
Isaac and Travis were found near the boat and dock.
“I just laid down in the grass and gave up when I saw them coming,” said Isaac. “I told them I was fine. I told them that Travis was in worse shape than I was. They put a neck brace on me, and we went to the hospital.”
All five guys were reunited in the emergency room at the Glacial Ridge Hospital in Glenwood. They all had injuries, but they would soon find out the severity of their injuries.
“I thought I was going home that night,” said Isaac. “I had three vertebrae broken. They told me I was going to Hennepin County Medical Center (HCMC). They said I was pretty lucky I wasn’t paralyzed from all the walking and falling down I had done. I was in ICU for 24 hours. I was able to get out a day or two later with a halo. I had the halo on for 12 weeks. I had to learn how to sleep with it on. Overall, though, I was pretty lucky.”
Jesse was transported to the St. Cloud Hospital with serious internal injuries, including a liver that was nearly cut in half.
Travis had eight broken ribs, a concussion and several cuts to his head. He was also transported to St. Cloud Hospital that night.
Nick had broken ribs and quite a bit of bruising, but was able to go home that night.
Jason’s condition was the most grave.
“They were very nervous about my injuries (being fatal),” said Jason. “Two arteries were cut. They were worried about blood loss, so they were pumping them full of something. Coolers of blood came from Alexandria to help out before I was taken to the Cities.”
There was a helicopter accident in Alexandria days before the accident, and there was bad weather in the Twin Cities area, so it was determined there would not be a helicopter for Jason that night. Instead, an airplane from Grand Forks picked up Jason and flew him to Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, where he was transported to HCMC.
“I went into a CAT scan, and then, they intubated me,” said Jason. “Then, I don’t remember anything for two days.”
When he did wake up, family was nervous about telling him about his legs. They didn’t think that he knew that both his legs were gone, just below the knees. Jason said he knew his legs would be gone, but didn’t yet know how much of them doctors could save.
Visitors started showing up immediately.
“Some friends were there, but I couldn’t talk,” he remembered. “I really wanted was some water. All I got was a sponge.”
His wounded hunting buddies also made their way to HCMC.
“We saw Jason about a week later. We all went down there,” said Isaac. “And then we tried to see him about once a week after that.”
Jason had 15 surgeries on his legs in the days and months ahead. “Way too many,” he said. The surgeries were first to save his life and, once he stabilized, to repair his legs to the point where he would be able to function with prosthetic legs. Infections also created havoc on his recovery.”
Helping Jason through these hard days was his wife, Christine, and other family members. Plus, he got an extra boost from the community. “We had so many cards and support on Caring Bridge while I was in the hospital. Every night me and Christine would read those. It definitely helped.”
Christine never left Jason’s side during his entire stay at HCMC.
“She is a teacher, and she didn’t have enough sick leave,” said Jason. “The other teachers gave her their own sick leave, so she could be there for me. That is how small towns work. She never left.”
The next several months turned out to be a medical roller coaster, with multiple surgeries and constant battles with infections or worries of infection.
And through it all, his attitude stayed positive. While at the hospital, he had a conversation with a guy who had also lost his legs in an accident. The guy had been in the hospital for a long time and had not been able to go back to work. He had a negative attitude toward getting better.
“I’m more of a glass half full guy. No ‘poor me’ kind a stuff. I have two kids and a wife. I’m not going to just sit there,” he said. “I wanted to talk to someone who had been through something like this, but I didn’t want to talk to him. This guy didn’t even try to go back to work.”
Jason was told he would likely be in physical therapy for a month. Determined, Jason spent just eight days in the HCMC physical therapy.
“I had to learn how to shower, use the bathroom, that kind of thing. Because of my neck, I didn’t really have feeling in my hand for a long time, which also made things difficult,” he said.
One weekend, about three weeks after the accident, Jason was joined by all of the guys from the accident. They decided to wheel Jason down to U.S. Bank Stadium to check it out, since it was new. They weren’t sure if they were supposed to take him out, but just decided to go for it. “We didn’t ask,” Nick smiled.
After months at HCMC, Jason returned home to a warm welcome from friends and others in the community.
“We knew they were coming back, so the Sedan first responders and Starbuck Fire Department met him near Westport,” said Nick. “They followed him all the way home.”
“The Starbuck Fire Department helped the day of the accident. They told me they would take me home, and they wanted to live up to their word,” said Jason.
Two people were especially excited to have Jason home… his daughter, Maddie (13) and son, Owen (10).
“It was very hard on them to have me gone,” said Jason. “And shortly after I got home, I had to go back to the hospital because of an infection. They didn’t want me to go back. I was worried they would be embarrassed that dad didn’t have legs, but they weren’t embarrassed at all.”
While Jason was hospitalized, people in the community chipped in to renovate his home. Friends and businesses donated materials and labor to build a ramp outside the house and remodel the inside of the house to make it more accessible.
“The reaction from the community was unbelievable,” said Jason, wiping away some tears. “Just unbelievable.”
Two benefit events were planned at Lakeside Ballroom, one for Jason and one for Isaac.
“Both guys are really humble guys,” said Nick. “Neither wanted to do it. They aren’t ‘ask for charity’ type guys. When we approached them and said this would be a good chance to thank the community, they finally agreed to it.”
The ballroom was packed, and thousands were raised for both families to help defray medical expenses.
“We really appreciated everything they did for us. The support was amazing,” said Isaac.
“I have never seen anything like it,” said Nick. “There are so many people supporting the cause.”
Jason was able to get home in time for something he was really looking forward to with his kids. In November, just a couple of months after the accident, Jason was able to take them deer hunting. Bob Lange lined up a special all-terrain wheelchair with a handicapped deer stand.
“I was tearing up watching him and the kids going up to the deer stand,” said Nick. “That was a big step for him. It wasn’t much of a hunt for him. He couldn’t shoot. But he was out there.”
The trip to the deer stand wasn’t the only trip on his mind.
“A week before the accident, my family decided we were going to take a trip to Mexico,” said Jason. “I set a goal. I needed to get better so we could be able to go on the trip. I got my (prosthetic) legs, and the first time I walked on them was the Friday before we left for Mexico. I couldn’t wear the legs much but here and there, but I was able to go.”
As days and weeks went by, Jason started getting more comfortable with his new legs. “Every day I could go a little longer,” he said. Jason learned how to walk and later learned how to drive. As his legs shrunk and expanded, he needed new prosthetics. “I’m on my third pair of legs now.”
All the guys were extremely thankful for the support they received from the community. Each one of the men is married, and each has at least two kids. Not only did the community help them, they said the community helped lift up their families during the difficult days of recovery and beyond.
“I don’t think any of our families had to cook a meal for over a month,” said Jason. “People from the community just kept bringing us food and helping any way they could.”
The guys always heard about how small communities come together to help when someone is in need. They got to see this all first hand.
“It was amazing what our small community did for us,” said Jason. “I am grateful to live in a small town. They really helped us through this.”
“I am very grateful to all of those who helped,” said Jason. “I want to thank my family, my community, first responders and ambulance crews, fire departments, doctors and nurses here in Glenwood and at HCMC, physical and occupational therapists. Everyone who helped me out.”
On Oct. 22, 2017, a little more than a year after the accident, four of the five guys made a return trip to the Cities and U.S. Bank Stadium (Jesse’s house was being sold that day so he couldn’t go). This time, there was no wheelchair and no halo. The guys spent a great day together watching the Minnesota Vikings defeat the Baltimore Ravens 24-16.
The guys look back at Sept. 21, 2016, as a horrible day…. but a day that could have been much worse.
“A lot of stuff had to go right that day,” said Nick. “It is unbelievable that no one was killed in this accident.”
“One thing I remember about that day… Nick wasn’t even supposed to come with us on the boat,” said Jason, fighting back tears. “He decided to come at the last minute.”
Despite the life-changing injuries, Jason continues to count his blessings and stays positive.
“I lost my legs that day, but I got a new set of legs. I’m not paralyzed. I just got a clipped ear and lost my legs. It could have been worse.”
Last fall, a year to the day when all hell broke loose on an airboat, the guys took the day off so they could be with each other.
“Four of us got together for breakfast,” said Nick. “Then, we went to Cabela’s and bought some waders. Then, all the families got together and hung out that night. We had a lot of tears and a lot of laughs. What a difference a year makes.”
Most of the physical injuries sustained by all five guys have healed. The mental part of it remains a work in progress.
“Jason getting better helps get the rest of us better,” said Nick.
How did something like this affect their friendship?
“This has brought us all closer as a group,” said Isaac.
“We were very tight before, but we are even closer now,” said Nick. “Our families are close. These guys are like family.”
“This made us all stronger (as friends). Any one of them would tell them that,” said Jason.