Hard-nosed Montana fisherman Andy Hill, who recently founded a nonprofit organization to teach disabled people how to make lures and cast lines, suddenly finds himself in a wheelchair -- at least for the time being.
For 21 years, Hill, a social worker, has waded into the Clark Fork River in East Missoula to catch trout. But on Sunday he left his fishing gear at home to indulge in his first lazy inner-tube ride down the river.
He had floated 300 feet when he passed under Bandmann Bridge, and nothing could have prepared him for what happened next. A man looking to cool off from the summer heat leaped off the bridge -- a 50-foot drop -- and landed in Hill's lap.
The grisly accident left Hill's legs mangled.
On Wednesday, Hill, 40, called the accident a “ridiculous irony,” given that it was only three months ago that he founded an organization called Fishabilities to bring disabled people outdoors.
“It turned around to bite me in the ass,” he said lightly.
After pausing to load himself into his new wheelchair during a phone interview with the Los Angeles Times, Hill listed his injuries: breaks to his left femur and his left and right fibula bones, and most likely tears to both ACLs (anterior cruciate ligaments) and PCLs (posterior cruciate ligaments).
The impact plunged Hill 3 feet underwater and knocked off one of his Chaco sandals.
“I instantly had extreme pain,” he recalled. “It was probably a few minutes before I realized what was happening.”
After landing on him, the man helped Hill, still on his inner tube, to shore.
Hill said the man, who has not been identified, apologized over and over -- but in a tone more expressive of a plea for leniency.
“It reminded me of when two kids are playing,” Hill said. “One gets hurt, and the other says, 'Sorry' with a tone like, ‘Don’t tell Dad.’ He didn't seem overly sorry.”
The Missoula County sheriff has recommended to the county attorney's office that the man be arrested for negligent endangerment, a sheriff's spokeswoman said, but that hasn't happened yet. Montana state law doesn’t restrict recreational jumping from bridges, but a county resolution bans jumping from certain bridges, including Bandmann.
Adding insult to his injuries, Hill said people had resumed jumping off the bridge as soon as he was ashore, with hundreds still floating on the river.
Hill, who has two teenage children with his wife, Amy, said his bewilderment is gradually turning to anger. He worries about whether insurance will cover his escalating medical expenses.
But he said his brief experience being stuck in his house and wheeled to doctor’s appointments has already sharpened his enthusiasm for his nascent nonprofit group. All he wants to do is fish.
Hill longingly recalled the $1,000 fly rod he’d built by hand and then broken days before his accident -- “my pride and joy” -- and said he stares out the window wishing he were on the water.
Hill was already making plans to teach fly-tying and lure-making classes to disabled people this winter, but now he knows firsthand how influential those activities might be.
"I'm stepping into somebody's wheels instead of their shoes," he said.