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I Was Pinned Under a 10-Ton Trailer—and Used My Pocket Knife to Escape

The sugar-cane paddock was quiet as Barry Lynch’s scream pierced the air. The farmer was pinned to the earth by a 10-ton trailer and kilometres away from help.

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Barry Lynch was pinned under a 10-ton trailerPhoto: Veronica Sagredo/Blueclick Photography

An unremarkable start

The landscape was dark and cool as Australian sugar-cane farmer Barry Lynch pulled his pickup truck to the edge of the road and engaged the handbrake. It was 6 a.m. The burly 54-year-old took a quick swig of coffee, adjusted his cap and stepped out of the cab into the North Queensland morning.

Working swiftly, Lynch checked out the machinery he was to use that day. The red-and-black tractor was attached to a trailer—and a tanker on wheels filled with 5,400 litres of herbicide. He was heading to a far paddock to spray some young cane, but his mind was already on that evening’s mission. It was October 1, 2013, the first anniversary of his mother’s death. Once he’d finished work, he’d head to the coastal town of Lucinda, about 140 kilometres away, where he and his sister Susan would release flowers into the ocean in her memory.

Lynch had lived most of his life on a sugar-cane farm, near the humid, tropical northeast coast, so working the land was in his blood. He travelled from farm to farm, preparing the ground and nurturing young cane. It was a lonely job. Most days it was just him. But he enjoyed driving the big machinery and loved the smell of the soil as he worked the paddocks. He was well-known for his determination and dedication to the job—for never resting until the work was done.

This morning he had set out at 5 a.m. from his home in the small town of Tully. Single since his divorce nearly 30 years earlier, Lynch lived on his own but spent time with his two daughters and five grandchildren whenever he could. Family has always been important to him: Lynch was one of six children himself, and he’d been especially close to his father, whose beloved multi purpose pocket knife he’d inherited. The tool, with its two blades, pliers, screwdriver and a little saw, meant the world to the farmer. He was never without it.

To access the crops, he needed to drive the tractor down a steep decline, over a creek and up the other side. He climbed into the cab, turned the key and felt the tractor rumble to life. Then he put it into gear and set off.

A sudden bout of agony

CRUNCH. The tractor jerked and ground to a halt. As he clambered out of the cab to see what had happened, his phone fell out of his pocket. He swore under his breath as he picked it up, then quickly made his way behind the tractor.

As the vehicle had headed over the ridge, the pressure on the metal drawbar linking the tractor to the trailer had snapped it. The hydraulic cables were still connected, but the drawbar was hanging lopsided and broken, leaving the trailer—now on flat ground—in a nosedive.

One end of the drawbar was bolted to the underside of the tractor, underneath the gearbox. All Lynch needed to do was loosen the bolt to release it, then he could repair the drawbar and get on with his day. He shifted the tractor into reverse and backed it up, nudging the trailer backwards as he did so.

He quickly walked the 500 metres back to his pickup, irritation niggling in the pit of his stomach—he wanted to get the job done right. He grabbed his tool kit and a length of chain, took a swig of rapidly warming cola and tossed his mobile phone on the passenger seat to avoid dropping it a second time.

There was no one around for kilometres. Lynch inspected the damage more closely. The drawbar of the tanker had dug into the earth, but the threepoint hitch—another link between tractor and trailer—was still intact. He wrapped the chain around it to lift the trailer off the ground, steadied the trailer wheels with wooden chocks and jumped onto the tractor to move it forward and give himself space to crawl underneath. Then he slithered through on his left side to get to the bolt in order to retrieve the broken piece of drawbar.

It was hot and noisy underneath the tractor as he stretched to manoeuvre the wrench. He didn’t realize it, but as he reached forward, his right knee pressed against one of the wooden chocks. Suddenly, the chock gave way and nearly 10 tons of fully loaded tanker and fertilizer crashed down on the inside of Lynch’s leg.

Trapped and completely alone

The paddock was quiet as Lynch’s scream pierced the air. He was pinned to the earth with his leg bent, the full weight of the trailer on the inside of his knee, compressing it to half its natural size and cutting off the circulation. Below the knee, his calf and foot immediately started to swell with pooling blood. The pain was overwhelming.

I’ve got to get that boot off, Lynch screamed inside his head. He could feel his foot swelling as he reached down and fumbled to rip off his footwear. I’m in trouble here, he thought. My phone’s in the pickup. No one will realize I’m missing until tomorrow morning if I fail to show up for work.

Lynch tried yelling out but soon realized there wasn’t anyone to hear him. And who would notice a tractor sitting in the middle of a cane paddock in Far North Queensland?

As pain and panic washed over him, he reached for his packet of cigarettes, lay back and lit up with trembling hands.

Smoking calmed him a little. About halfway through the cigarette, he realized he had two options: either he could try to amputate his own leg or he could dig himself free. Lynch reached for his knife. The trailer was resting on a block of wood and wouldn’t shift any further. With the knife and his wrench, which was still on the ground, maybe he could dig out the earth from underneath his leg.

Lynch got to work. He pulled out the five-centimetre blade and started to chip away at the solid earth beneath his knee, hitting the knife with his wrench. The reddish soil of the track was as hard as a tarred road, compacted from the weight of heavy machinery over the years. By tapping vigorously on the little saw with the spanner, he could dig its entire length into the ground. Then he wriggled it from side to side, loosening the dirt before pulling it out and knocking it in again a few millimetres away. After many repetitions, a small chunk of road was loose enough for him to scrape away with his hands.

Every 10 to 15 minutes he’d switch to the other side of his leg and start there. Sweat ran down Lynch’s forehead and stung his eyes. The temperature steadily rose toward 30 C as the morning wore on, with half of his body in the direct sun and the other half in the heat of the tractor. He had no water, and he thirstily eyed the dripping overflow from the tractor’s air conditioning a couple of feet behind him.

He took off his cap and set it upside down on the broken piece of drawbar, where it could catch the drips. He knew it wasn’t potable, but he was desperate. Then he consumed what little moisture he could and carried on chipping away.

By noon, the sun was directly overhead, beating down on Lynch’s chest and legs. His mind wandered to his family, and he wept. Am I really never going to see them again? But then he thought of his mother. He was damned if he was going to die here, today, on the anniversary of her death. I’m going to be there to lay those flowers, he told himself. The goal gave him a little strength.

Then anger welled up. I should have secured the trailer better, he thought. The frustration was good—it gave him more adrenalin to keep going. He pulled himself together and kept chipping at the earth.

This Argentine climber was stranded on Mount Logan for four days.

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Barry Lynch was pinned under a 10-ton trailerPhoto: Veronica Sagredo/Blueclick Photography

Barely hanging on

Six hours later, he still wasn’t free, and he was getting weaker. Not only does being crushed damage the part of the body that has taken the force but it can also lead to a lack of blood to the muscles and tissues, which can damage the nerves and lead to muscle death. The blood pooling in Lynch’s leg caused it to swell up. He was at risk of passing out.

By now, Lynch’s leg was four times its normal size, turning black as it had grown bigger. He  could feel the skin cracking. It was as if his leg was going to explode. Damn it, I’ll just stab it with the knife to relieve the pressure, Lynch thought. But before he could summon the courage, he looked down at the ground and saw that it was damp. He rubbed his hand up and down his leg and felt that it, too, was wet with blood. He realized with a jolt that the skin of his leg had burst, leaving a hole the size of a fist. Am I going to bleed out?

He reached around his waist and slowly took the belt from his pants. He tied it above the wound as a tourniquet, and the flow of blood slowed a little. But Lynch knew his time was limited. He started to dig even harder.

Breaking free

The afternoon shadows were growing longer as the trench under Lynch’s knee reached about 50 centimetres wide and 10 centimetres deep. That’s when he first felt some movement in his leg. He started to dig more frantically. Yes, his knee could definitely move. He took a gamble, grabbed hold of the three-point linkage arms of the tractor and levered himself up. Lynch pulled his leg, covered with a slick coat of blood and dirt, free. Euphoria and relief swept over him. I’m going to make it to the memorial, Lynch thought wildly as he crawled out from underneath the tractor. He pulled himself to standing, but as he put his weight on the injured leg, it snapped beneath him. He crumbled to the ground.

Unknown to Lynch, being free meant he was in critical danger. Over multiple hours, the lack of circulation to his leg had caused his cells to try to survive without oxygen. They were generating a large amount of lactic acid and leaking substances like potassium and myoglobin into the surrounding tissues, which can ultimately be fatal. Now that the leg was free, these deadly poisons would be carried around Lynch’s body, potentially causing life-threatening problems to his kidneys, heart, liver or lungs. He needed medical attention.

Lynch’s pain was becoming unbearable. I’ve got to get to my phone, he told himself. He started to pull himself along on his backside, his useless leg dragging. It took a full 10 minutes for him to haul himself the 500 metres to his truck. By the time he got there, he was ready to faint. Lynch reached up to the driver’s seat and pulled himself up on his arm, took a swig of the warm cola and grabbed his mobile. He called emergency.

Lynch was lying by his pickup, nearly unconscious. When, far in the distance, the ambulance came into sight, the farmer closed his eyes. The paramedic jumped out and knelt beside him.

“How are you, mate?” he asked.

“I’ve had a bit of trouble with my leg,” Lynch replied. As he saw the extent of the damage to his leg, he blacked out.

Healing—one day at a time

These days, Lynch still feels constant pain in his leg, but he’s glad to be alive. He was in hospital for more than five months and underwent 22 surgeries following the accident. A year later, he was finally able to lay the flowers for his mother’s memorial. His beloved pocket knife sits in a glass cabinet in his house. It symbolizes the memory of his father and the steadfast determination that allowed Lynch to survive.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest Canada