Man rescued days after crashing near Hecker
It was the type of scenario that sends chills down the spines of parents and fear that spawned the phrase, “Call me when you get home.”
But thanks to two observant and quick-thinking Illinois Department of Transportation workers, a Belleville family received its Christmas miracle.
Dennis Hepp of rural Red Bud and Joe Braun of Prairie du Rocher were working out of IDOT’s Hecker garage on Friday, tasked with checking road marker conditions on Route 156, just east of Route 159 near Richland Creek and Probst Road. As Braun drove their orange three-ton truck west, Hepp, in the passenger seat, saw what appeared to be a black SUV deep in a gully on the right side of the road.
“Turn back,” Hepp remembered shouting to Braun. “There’s a vehicle in that ravine.”
Christopher Belfield, 28, a native of Dupo, had left his brother John’s house in Belleville about 12:30 a.m. Tuesday. John told Chris to call when he made it to his friend’s house in Lenzburg. A missed call at about 2:05 a.m. gave John the impression Christopher, whom family call “Cheebo,” had made it safely. But when no one heard from him throughout the day, John became worried.
“I had been looking for him since Tuesday late afternoon,” John said. “About 7 p.m., I started worrying and I looked for him as well as several other friends and family.”
Braun turned the big truck around and as the pair made their way back to the site, they could see tire marks of matted grass on the side of the road leading to a deep hole. They turned in a driveway and approached the scene.
At first, as the duo surveyed the scene, all they saw was a black SUV with its windshield busted out standing on end at the bottom of the drainage ravine, partly submerged in water.
As they climbed down to inspect more closely, they heard a voice: “Help, help, help. Get me out of here!” It was 11:55 a.m. Friday.
GPS coordinates on Christopher’s phone would later indicate his Ford Expedition stopped moving at 1:14 a.m. Tuesday, some 82 hours earlier.
Christopher was leaning back against the driver’s seat with his eyes closed when Braun and Hepp reached him. He asked them for a cigarette.
“He was coherent but disoriented,” Hepp said.
He didn’t know if he was in Illinois or Missouri, and didn’t remember where he lived. He knew he had been there at least three days. And he was alive.
“I’ve seen daylight arrive three times now,” he told them.
Hecker Fire Department personnel and EMS, along with the St. Clair County Sheriff’s Department, were dispatched to the scene.
“He sure was glad to see somebody,” Hecker Fire Chief Ralph Eckart said.
Firefighters pried the roof off the vehicle and pulled Christopher out through the top. His foot had been pinned under the brake pedal.
“I can’t imagine what he experienced,” Braun said.
Braun added that IDOT doesn’t always have the personnel to staff a truck with two workers, but thankfully the nature of their assignment that day called for both Hepp and Braun on the job.
“Otherwise, there’s no way I’d have seen the vehicle,” Braun said. “I’d have been focused on driving.”
Temperatures while Christopher was trapped ranged from a high of 42 degrees on Tuesday to a low of 16 on Thursday.
He was transported to a St. Louis area hospital. He has a broken back, swelling on his brain and frostbite. Due to the severity of the fracture, his right leg was amputated below the knee. Toes on his left foot are now in danger as well, damaged by frostbite. But the swelling on his brain in decreasing, the bleeding has stopped, and he responds to his family.
“Cheebo was definitely still Cheebo last night,” John said Tuesday. “When he heard my voice he went crazy trying to loosen his arms, sitting up, mean mugging me because he wanted me to get him loose. But I talked him down, let him know (his daughter) Gracie would be here today and we need him to do as they ask and to cooperate so he can get the tubes out and see and hold Gracie. Then all he was doing was trying to get a hug. He was calmed down, then I kissed his forehead and told him I loved him.
“We appreciate and are so grateful to the men that found him,” John continued. “He is a vital part of mine and my kids’ lives. He also has a 2-month-old daughter he hasn’t met yet that was in Florida. He was trying to get a plane ticket to go see her but now she will be here on Tuesday.”
“God bless the gentlemen who found my son,” Christopher’s mom, Tammy Wyatt added. “He is critical but stable and will have to endure a few more surgeries, but he is going to pull through this.
“God has blessed him this far and I have faith that he will continue to watch over him.”
(Alan Dooley and Andrea Saathoff contributed to this story.)