Following an eventful month of sickness, passing a kidney stone, and eventually getting some rest, we finally made it back into Iski-land the other day! After being away for so long, we were definitely ready to get back into a normal rhythm of life again. Even though our home is in a swampy jungle, it’s still home, and we had begun to miss it. And so, it was with hearts full of gladness that we got off the chopper, visited with the many Iski men and women who were gathered around, and made our way over to our house. It was with much less gladness that I got back on the chopper 45 minutes later, splattered with blood and wondering what the odds were that I would retain the use of all of the fingers on my left hand.
So, here’s the story. We had flown two technicians into the bush with us that day to install our satellite-internet system. We’ve been waiting for this momentous event to happen for over a year, so we were pretty excited to finally be getting things up and running. Our helicopter pilot had even arranged it so he could spend the night on the ground with us to give the techs more time to work and to cut down our flight costs (yeah, our pilots are awesome).
We had cemented a big metal pole in the ground a month earlier, before we left the village, so we were ready to start the installation of the 2 meter-wide dish within minutes of unloading our gear. Step 1 of the whole process was pretty basic: our metal post was a bit too long, so we needed to cut about a meter off the top. I knew this going in, so I had borrowed and angle grinder* from the workshop at one of our mission centers to do the job with.
As I was setting up the grinder, one of the other guys mentioned that the 4 inch diameter disc we had brought with us was kind of thick, which would cause a lot more friction and make the job take longer than if we used a thinner one. What he was saying seemed to make sense, and I did happen to have another type of cutting disc on hand, so I went ahead and made the swap.
[NOTE: From this point on, much of my content will probably sound like the epitome of stupidity and negligence. At several points, I fully expect you to be thinking, “You are the dumbest person I know.” I’m not going to argue with you, except to say, “It seemed like a good idea at the time.” ]**
So, I replaced the original 1/2 inch thick, 4 inch diameter disc with a 1/8 inch thick, 10 inch diameter disc. I was now presented with the unique situation of the cutting disc extending the length of the handle, in a parallel position, about 1/2 an inch underneath where I was gripping the tool. [see illustration] I dubbed this an acceptable probability of danger, as I was going to compensate for it by “being careful.”
Since I was already wearing my prescription glasses for eye protection [there is no need for you to comment here], I put on a pair of ear protectors, climbed up onto the half of a metal drum that I was using as my perch and prepared to start up the machine. I told the crowd of villagers that were gathered around to give me a wide birth, just in case something went wrong,*** and then I fired up the grinder and positioned it at the edge of the post, directly level with my face.
Let me just pause here for a moment to let you get your head around the absurdity of this situation:
- I was standing on half of a barrel holding a power tool that I have almost zero experience with.
- I was about to begin cutting a large, steel pipe with a fragile disc, that was spinning at an insane rate of speed, directly in front of my face, my sole bodily protection being a pair of $15 prescription glasses from China.
- Because of the disc substitution, one of my hands had a mere 1/2 inch of space between it and the whirling grinding plate beneath it.
- Because the disc I was using was 2 1/2 times wider than the original disc, that meant that the rotational velocity of the outside edge was 2 1/2 times faster than it was intended to be cutting at.
- Add to all those factors the later-realized reality that the thinner, wider disc that I had installed was designed to function at 2,000 Revolutions Per Minute (RPM) and the machine I was using was cranking at 6,000 RPM, and you have the perfect recipe for impending disaster.
The details are all a little fuzzy, because everything happened in about the span of 1/100th of a second, but I’m pretty sure it went something like this: As the outer atoms of the grinding disc made contact with the outer atoms of the steel pipe they joined together in a powerful, yet brief, cacophonous shout of, “TINK!” and instantly exploded into roughly 500,000 pieces of flying shrapnel.
It was kind of like watching a magic trick: One second, I was looking at a 10 inch disc, and then, in a puff of smoke and dust, it was gone. As I stood there trying to make sense of what had just happened, I became aware of another bit of smoke and mirror action: where, just two seconds before, the back of my left hand had been, there was now a ginormous bloody window displaying the inner workings of my hand’s anatomy. As I tried to process what I was looking at, I moved my fingers and was partially mesmerized as I watched 3 inches of one of my tendons slide back and forth over my newly exposed knuckle bones.
“Doggone it!” I said. “You’ve got to be kidding me!” But when I turned around and saw all the wide-eyed faces of the Iski men and women who were standing around me, it became apparent that there was no joke. They were seeing the same thing I was.
We spent the next few minutes wrapping my shredded hand in some bandages, and assessing the situation. It was pretty evident that we couldn’t deal with an injury like this where we were in the bush, so Rochelle quickly packed me a bag, and Mike got the chopper up and going again. Mike was going to have to come back out the next day to pick up our two technicians anyway, so we figured I would either get stitched up quick at our mission clinic and come back out in the morning, or Rochelle and the boys would come out and join me on the center if I was going to have to stay a while. It turned out that we had to go for the latter option. [By the way, you can look at a few other pictures on our Facebook wall, if you want to]
I’ll get into the second half of the story in another post, but before I do, I really think it’s important to note a couple of things that continue to stand out to me about that day. Hindsight is 20-20, and I am continually amazed at how many utterly stupid actions I was able to squeeze into such a short amount of time without realizing it. And yet, in the midst of all the idiocy and the flagrant disregard for safety, the only thing that came out of it was a messed up hand.
I’ve played the scene over in my head a hundred times, and it could have been so much worse. Should have been, really. I was standing a foot and a half from the blast, and shrapnel flew in 360 degrees all around me. There was obviously enough force involved to decimate soft tissue, and I was standing fully exposed. I could have taken a hit to the face. I could have lost my eyes. I could have gotten my neck cut. I could have lost my fingers. But none of those things happened. Even the gash on my hand was relatively superficial. All of the important pieces were left intact, with only a small, somewhat redundant, tendon getting severed and one of my knuckle joints getting a small puncture – both easily repairable in Australia.
All of our communications had been completely down for the last 2 days. No radio, no texts or calls, and no satellite internet (obviously). If the chopper hadn’t been on sight that day, then we would have had to have waited, completely cut off from the outside world, until the next scheduled flight the next morning. And on any other heli day, our pilot would have taken off right after dropping us off. This was the only day in the two years that we’ve lived in our village that the heli has ever been scheduled to overnight in our location.
I’ll be honest, I’ve just been completely blown away at the grace that God showed me that day. I haven’t been able to even consider complaining about any of it. I basically did my darndest to unwittingly kill myself, and God worked it out so that all I ended up getting out of it was a “flesh wound.”
Please take a moment to thank God with me for his amazing provision for me and our family that day (and in the days following). He really can’t be thanked enough.
* This is a tool that spins an abrasive disc really fast, and is used to smooth out or cut through metal.
**And, though I’ll take a good deal of the credit for myself, it’s worth mentioning that there were 4 other Western guys right there next to me, and I wasn’t getting a whole lot of constructive criticism from them about it. I’m just sayin’.
*** I’m pretty sure this is the only part of the story that I can think back on and say “That was a good decision.”