Lakes Region EMT, members of Shafer-Franconia Fire and Rescue treasure new friendship with a life they saved
The accident that changed her life was waiting on the road ahead.
It was a blisteringly hot afternoon on July 17, 2013, when Ursula Wachowiak was cutting through Minnesota en route to her first Sturgis Rally in South Dakota. Six months before, she traded her corporate career for a motorcycle and new journey in life with no real place to call home.
Wachowiak was approaching a “deep curve” on the two-lane Highway 95, between Highway 243 and Sugar Bush Trail, in Franconia Township, where a semitrailer truck was coming toward her in the opposite lane. As they were about to pass each other, a car that had been trailing the semi attempted to pass on the left.
There was no time to stop or swerve to safety for the car, estimated at traveling 75-80 mph, or the motorcycle, at about 50-55 mph. It was a head-on crash that sent Wachowiak flying in one direction and her bike some 40 feet in another. Her body laid broken in the ditch. She thought her time had come and even prepared for it.
Ed Kubicki, assistant fire chief and first responder for Shafer-Franconia Fire and Rescue, was alerted to the crash via call over his private truck’s radio at about 2:45 p.m. With him were his wife, Lisa, their 15-year-old son, Eddie, and David Thorsten, a Shafer-Franconia volunteer firefighter and first responder who works full time as an emergency medical technician for Lakes Region EMS.
They had just ordered food at a McDonald’s drive-thru after coming back from a search and rescue effort for a 2-year-old Polk County boy who had wandered off from a farm.
“It was an unproductive day,” Kubicki said, “and we had to think about going home with heavy hearts.”
Finding they were not too far from the crash scene, which was about 3 miles south of Highway 8, they immediately responded with the truck and limited resources they had. They were the first on the scene, and the men let their skills and training take over.
Thorsten was the first to reach Wachowiak down in the ditch, and he noticed right away her left leg, which was torn apart and bleeding heavily. He called for Kubicki to help him put pressure on the leg, bandage it and eventually apply the type of tourniquet the military uses, until the authorities and all their gear arrived.
Though Wachowiak appeared in shock, she was aware enough to talk to the responders and even recollect details of the crash. The men knew they had to keep her talking and awake.
“I remember Ursula was really, really calm — too calm for what was happening,” Thorsten said. “She was staring at the cows in the nearby field. I asked her what her name was and where she was from. She said she had a son, so I said, ‘OK, cool, let’s talk about that. We’re going to help you.’ In all of my EMS and fire training, it just took over.”
“They learned my whole life story in the ditch,” Wachowiak noted. “They got me through that 30 minutes of hell.”
In about 10 minutes, Kubicki and Thorsten were joined by emergency crews and law enforcement, including deputies from the Chisago County Sheriff’s Office and a crew aboard a fire truck from the Shafer-Franconia department. A Lakes Region EMS ambulance arrived, and a helicopter was on its way to land right on the highway and airlift Wachowiak to Regions Hospital in St. Paul.
Also assisting her was Kubicki’s teenage son, Eddie, who kept her head still while the team tended to her wounds, fitted her with a cervical collar and placed her on a backboard in preparation for the ambulance. Rather than turning away, the boy embraced the experience and now aspires to be a paramedic.
“I must have planted the seed in helping people,” Kubicki said. “I’m very proud of that boy.”
Added Wachowiak, “He told me my crash solidified what he wants to do. That young man observed a lot of stuff that day. It says something about his inner spirit and aspirations after what he saw.”
Wachowiak, who chose to have her left leg below the knee surgically amputated, ended up surviving the crash and is adjusting to life with a prosthesis. She spent much of her recovery time back home in Georgia, but she’s got the itch to start a new journey on the road.
In addition, she remains good friends with her responders in Chisago County. They keep in touch on Facebook and with phone text messages.
“We all wondered how she was,” Thorsten said before they got in touch with her after the accident. “It was sad to hear that she lost her leg, but it was awesome to hear how she’s doing and that she’s still alive and surviving. It made us feel good about what we did. Anytime you can save somebody’s life, it’s an amazing feeling. She’s a super vibrant person and to learn that she’s touched a lot of people, it’s a good feeling.”
For Wachowiak, she feels she doesn’t want to let her responders down, now that she has a new life thanks to their efforts.
“I want to show them they saved me for a good reason,” she said. “I want them to know they didn’t waste any effort in saving this life. It was worth it. I think in a lot of ways they have that same feeling. These people didn’t allow me to give up. They kept me fighting.”
Just last month, Wachowiak returned to Minnesota and reunited with her new friends over burgers and beverages at the Shafer Saloon. They laughed, they cried, they hugged, they talked about the accident and how each other is doing.
“She’s like family now; a friend for life,” Thorsten said. “When she’s having a tough time or struggling with life, she’ll text me. I still have a voice mail from her that I won’t delete. Ed (Kubicki) made a plaque for her and sent it to her. She left me a voice mail, and she was crying. ‘You guys are amazing. Thank you for saving my life,’ she said.
“It (saving a life) makes going to work worth it. We’re all volunteer, as I was firefighter at the crash. All of my experience and training from Lakes Region EMS was a huge asset. It’s a big time commitment, with calls on holidays and in the middle of the night. We definitely don’t do it for any money; we do it out of passion for people, helping people and saving people,” he added.
While the reunion was perhaps overdue, it wasn’t the main reason for Wachowiak’s return. She came back to give a victim’s impact statement March 18 in Chisago County District Court. She talked about the accident and how it and the man who was responsible for her injuries have affected her life.
Anthony James Lukas, 21, of Stillwater, was charged with a misdemeanor count of careless driving and pleaded guilty at his first court appearance.
The results of the State Patrol-led investigation concluded the cause of the crash was the defendant’s decision to pass a truck on an area of the road that did not provide ample visibility or time to pass. By law the conduct is consistent with negligence, but it did not rise to the level of gross negligence, which would have allowed a more severe charge, said Chisago County Attorney Janet Reiter.
After the defendant’s plea on March 18, the sentence imposed was 90 days in jail, all stayed, on the condition that he pay a fine, restitution to the victim, complete 40 hours of community service work and complete a safe driving course.
This was a good example of a remorseful defendant, and the victim’s statement at the defendant’s sentencing exhibited forgiveness, Reiter observed.
Afterward, Wachowiak and Lukas agreed to lunch and even drove back to the crash site together.