January 13, 2017
You know you’ve endured some pretty hellacious trauma when you’re toweling off after a shower and a shard of glass falls out of your head.
That is, from the accident two weeks before.
“Honestly,” Brad Ruhnke explained last week, a cast on his right leg and a metal pin protruding from his left big toe, “this should have been worse.
“I don’t know how I survived.”
A lifelong resident of Carroll who serves with immense pride in his hometown as a volunteer firefighter, the 34-year-old father of two very nearly lost it all in Greene County, on a sparsely traveled road he never really liked, on a cold November morning that began like any other.
Ruhnke was at the wheel of his Pepsi truck the morning of Nov. 29, hauling carbonated soft drinks from Jefferson to Bayard like he has for years, when something went horribly wrong.
“I’ll never know what caused it,” he recalled. “It was a normal day up until 9:30.”
The news photos that emerged from the crash scene astonished those who recognize the value of life — and stunned others who merely know the price of pop.
There, on a stretch of E57 south of Jefferson that Ruhnke had come to distrust because of its bumps and dips, his tractor-trailer careened into a bridge, causing the trailer to backflip into Greenbrier Creek below and sending soft drinks downstream.
However, the cab never detached.
Coming to rest on the bridge in a crumpled ball, Ruhnke had essentially just survived the equivalent of being inside a can of Wild Cherry Pepsi that’s been shaken up and then cracked open.
“It’s in my head, but I don’t know how to describe it,” Ruhnke said of the noise a tractor-trailer makes when it slams into a bridge, then twists and topples over the guardrail.
It could be another two months before the affable Pepsi driver from Carroll known across Greene County as Peanut — Ruhnke isn’t sure some of the gals at the gas stations even know his real name — is back at work.
That’s a bold prediction considering he can’t yet walk or drive.
Restricted for the time being to putting weight on only his left heel, the guy who proudly claims he’s “not an office guy” is now confined to a chair for hours on end.
But it could have been so much worse.
“I saw the pictures and my heart sunk,” said Debbie Dennhardt, manager of the Sparky’s One Stop in Rippey and a volunteer firefighter herself.
“Please don’t let it be Peanut,” she remembers thinking. “And it was.”
Ruhnke, a 2001 graduate of Carroll High School and a 12-year employee of the Pepsi bottler there, bristles at the suggestion he was texting or on his phone when the crash occurred.
On the contrary, it was only after he somehow managed to free himself from the mangled cab that he reached inside his pants pocket and pulled out what was left of his Samsung Galaxy.
It was shattered.
Ruhnke believes a dip in the road, aided that morning by a stiff wind, sent his semi careening toward the guardrail.
“I always said I don’t like that road,” he explained, “but I take it because it’s quicker.”
Ruhnke had just visited Hy-Vee, Fareway and Kum & Go in Jefferson and was bound for Bayard.
He hit the bridge at exactly 61 mph.
“Sixty-one to zero in less than a second,” Ruhnke remarked.
Don Van Gilder, assistant Greene County engineer, said that section of E57 — between Highways 4 and 25 — hasn’t been paved since 1958, which isn’t uncommon for a road made of Portland cement.
“It’s all perspective from the seat of your pants,” Van Gilder said of its condition.
By coincidence, it’s due for an extensive patching project, he said, in the new fiscal year that begins July 1.
It will be too little too late for Ruhnke.
“I will not take my semi down that road again,” he vowed.
Inside his twisted cab that morning, Ruhnke could hear the sizzling of coolants and knew he needed to get out.
“I told myself I’m not dying in here,” he said.
Ruhnke had lost a close friend four years ago in a snowmobile crash.
“I’m sorry Jeff,” he said to himself, “I love you, but I’m not ready to see you yet.”
Spotting a nearby farmhouse, Ruhnke started walking for help, but he faced insurmountable odds — his ankle was shattered.
He still somehow made it the length of the bridge before lying down in the ditch, blood pouring from a deep laceration to the back of his head.
“With my fire training and EMT training,” he said, “I knew I wasn’t good.”
It would be at least another three minutes before a passer-by finally happened upon the wreckage, except that first good samaritan didn’t have a cellphone.
For Ruhnke, this is how 2016 would end.
His divorce was final in July, officially ending six years of marriage. He had met his wife at the Casey’s in Rockwell City while on his Pepsi route.
He gets custody of the kids — ages 6 and 4 — every other week.
“2016’s been interesting, to say the least,” said Ruhnke, who also suffered two broken ribs in the crash.
After six years on the Carroll Fire Department, Ruhnke is just two tests and his clinicals away from becoming an EMT.
“I told ’em, ‘Tell ’em to get LifeFlight ready. I know what I’m talking about here,’” he said, relaying what he told first responders that morning on the bridge.
“I knew I was not just going to the Jefferson hospital,” he added.
And he was right.
Flown by helicopter to Iowa Methodist Medical Center in Des Moines, he’s still not altogether sure how he survived the ordeal.
“They washed glass out of my head to no end,” Ruhnke recalled.
But he did survive, and with his sense of humor intact.
He said the nurses in Des Moines were fond of joking, “What would you like to drink? I just saw something float by.”
His brothers in the fire service made sure his return home in December would be as smooth as possible, constructing a wheelchair ramp for him and making his house handicap-accessible.
“They said they were working at the house,” he explained. “I didn’t know if it was a ramp or wrapping my house in bubble wrap.”
Ruhnke has stared into the jaws of adversity before.
In fact, it’s how he became a firefighter in the first place.
A fire in 2009 burned his North Main Street house to the studs.
“That’s what I want to do,” he said, remembering how he watched the firefighters do their best.
In the years since, Ruhnke has responded to his share of crashes.
Never could he have predicted that one day in Greene County, the roles would be reversed.
“I never thought in a million years I’d be the guy in the vehicle,” he said. “Gives you a whole new respect for what they do.
“What we do.”