Race car driver, shooting champ is pinned under ATV for more than 20 hours; a county commissioner saves him
By Kristy Bleizeffer Sep 18, 2014
When he could muster the effort, Charles Putman could lift his chin from the dirt, turn his head right to left, and he could see 150 to 200 yards in either direction. He saw the horizons of the small draw he’d rolled into, his 500-pound ATV resting on his back. He saw a line of trees not too far away.
And then ... he saw lights! Headlights coming through the trees. He wouldn’t have to spend the night in that pasture with nothing but his long-sleeve shirt and a nose-full of dust every time he took a breath. He saw another set of lights and waited for a rescue.
It didn’t come. His headlights turned out to be the moon rising through the trees.
“When the moon came on up, as beautiful as it was, that was a pretty disappointing sight,” said Charles, 63. “I really did have doubts that I would make it through the night. You start putting your house in order, so to speak.”
'He's spending the night out there'
Sunday evening, Charles and his wife of nearly 30 years, Dianne, planned a nice dinner at home. Charles rode off on his ATV a couple hours before to check gates on their 15,000-acre ranch 25 miles west of Casper.
He’d been gone two hours and then three. Hmm, Dianne thought. Still not back. But it’s not unlike him to come home in the dark.
She waited another hour. The timing didn’t make sense; he should have been back. She decided to call 911, knowing he’d ride over the hill at any minute and be annoyed that she made the call. It was about 9 p.m. and getting darker.
The Natrona County Sheriff’s Office sent two officers, and Dianne waited at the gate to meet them. She called friends who knew other people to call, including Debbie and Forrest Chadwick, chairman of the Natrona County Commission, and Charles’ friend for more than 40 years. The Chadwicks located a helicopter and contacted the Civil Air Patrol. They also called fellow commissioner Rob Hendry, a seasoned ranch pilot with his own plane.
The rescuers and volunteers drove the roads, came back to the house, consulted maps and went out again. Civil Air Patrol flew a plane with forward-looking infrared that could detect body heat. It found nothing.
“That was hard,” Dianne said. “I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, he’s going to be spending the night out there. I didn’t want to think that he wouldn’t make it, but it was getting later and later. I just thought of him down there, waiting for someone to come get him.”
Watch: K2TV's Andrew Lofholm interviewed Charlie Putman at Wyoming Medical Center for a search and rescue story with a happy ending.
Charles had checked the southernmost gate when he decided to go look at the site of a small wildfire earlier that summer. Instead of backtracking several miles, he cut across a swath of rugged terrain.
“That’s where I lose track of what happened. I blacked out for a second,” he said. “I came to as the dirt was still settling, and I could tell I was underneath the four wheeler. I wasn’t panicked. I just thought I’d push it off.”
Charles was on his belly, the ATV’s wheel resting on his back. He focused all his energy into rolling it off; he grabbed at sticks hoping to reach the start button on the handle bars. Nothing worked. With the weight on his back, he could only muster shallow breaths, and he tired easily. He scraped at the dirt under his head and his stomach, trying to relieve the pressure. Not a dent.
“It was not very pleasant lying there. It’s one of those things where you kind of have to go to your quiet place,” he said. “I was sort of like I was in a panini press, getting squeezed in the middle. That’s how I stayed for the next 20 hours.”
He watched the sun set and thought it would be his last. Temperatures dropped to 34 degrees as the moon he’d hoped was headlights arced across the sky. He shivered violently. Finally, the sun peeked over the horizon.
For the next several hours, he’d see planes circling overhead, but nobody showed up to get him. He could hear more planes in the distance and wondered if they were looking for him or just part of the normal traffic. A search helicopter flew over him a couple of times and he was sure, that time, the rescue was coming. He fired a few rounds from the pistol he carries with him, hoping someone would hear it. Nobody did.
Finally, an airplane flying low tipped the bird to the edge, its wing making an exaggerated dip toward the earth. It was about 2 p.m.
Knowing his friend, Forrest Chadwick knew Charlie would be found on the ranch. As the hours passed on Monday morning, some wanted to extend the search, but Chadwick knew Charlie wouldn’t have wandered off.“Rob, he’s on the ranch,” he told Hendry, the ranch pilot who’d volunteered his plane for the search. “I gave him the boundaries -- north, south, east and west -- and I told him he would be found within those boundaries.”He also told Hendry to look for any tracks that look like they don’t belong.
“Once I got here to the hospital, I thought, ‘We’re just so fortunate to have a great place with great people to help nurse me through this.’ Once you go through something like this, you think that once you’re found, that’s the end of it,” he said. “I’ve got another struggle going on now too. The doctors and nurses have been so attentive, and so kind.”
Hendry is used to flying low and looking for anything out-of-place. He noticed a faint set of stray tracks leaving the burnout area and followed them to Charles.
The great response by the local agencies and private citizens is typical of the community, Chadwick said.
“It speaks volumes that everyone would turn out and get there and do what they could do. Our thanks go to all the search and rescue people, the Sheriff’s Office, the Civil Air Patrol which came out and did a great job. Thank you to the McMurrys for supplying the helicopter to go look. And thanks to Rob Hendry who stuck with us for hours, with his own plane.”
Dianne heard the call on the radio. Ok, they found him. But is he Ok? Is he alive? Another report came five minutes later. Charles was dehydrated, but answering questions. Dianne had one more request for the man upstairs: Don’t let him be badly hurt.
That’s when she heard Charlie’s voice talking to her on the radio, deploying his signature sense of humor: “I’m stiff.”
Rescuers airlifted him to Wyoming Medical Center and Dianne hustled to town to beat him to the hospital. He suffered several rib fractures, two broken vertebrae, and contusions to his heart and lungs. The weight of the ATV made the muscles around his kidney shut down and he had about 25 percent kidney function on Tuesday. If medical staff can get that under control and he doesn’t need dialysis, Dianne expects him to spend about a week in the hospital.
“The prognosis is good and he’s a strong guy, obviously. If anyone could get through this, he’s the one. I had faith, that as long as he hadn’t hit his head, I knew he could survive just about anything,” Dianne said.
In the hospital, Charles tires easily but is getting stronger. When they first rolled off that ATV, he thought he’d stand up, nurse some bruises and get back to it. He’s simply used to getting up and doing things.
He is a race car driver with team Dempsey Racing, competing on the IMSA (International Motor Sports Association) and NASCAR circuits. He drives a Porche GT3 and an Audi R8. He won the GRAND-AM Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge GS Championship in 2010 with longtime friend and race partner Charles Esepnlaub, according to his Dempsey bio. He’s been an internationally ranked pistol marksman and an instructor at the Miller Motorsports High Performance Driving School. He’d hoped that they’d roll that ATV off and he’d be on his way to Atlanta for a scheduled race.
He knows now it’s not going to happen anytime soon. But, Tuesday afternoon, he was thankful just to be sitting in the recliner next to his hospital bed.
“This is so good, I gotta tell you,” he said. “Everybody who came out and searched and worked and refused to give up, they were out there in the dark, in near impossible conditions, because they were not giving up one bit. That really made me feel good to hear, because I was doing a lot to not give up.”
He agreed to tell his story so he could express his appreciation to everyone who came and looked. His wife thinks of Natrona County as a small community, where everybody knows somebody who knows somebody who can help in any crisis. And, everybody reaches out. The couple splits its time between Colorado and the ranch, and Charlie’s racing keeps them on the road most of the time. But they consider Casper home.