Bill Coultas said the nurses pleaded with his doctor to give them a few more days to scrape on his burned skin, hoping it would regenerate and spare him disfiguring grafts to his face.
CAVE JUNCTION — Bill Coultas said the nurses pleaded with his doctor to give them a few more days to scrape on his burned skin, hoping it would regenerate and spare him disfiguring grafts to his face.
Despite painkillers, he still woke up while they did it, scraping his skin down to the flesh, said his wife, Chris, who donned a gown and mask and helped with the gory task.
Now, three months after surviving a flaming helicopter crash, the 44-year- old Cave Junction man is missing part of his ear. Skin grafts cover a third of his body, and he's struggling to recover. But the skin on his face and neck is healing nicely.
"I'm pretty burned up and beat up and in a lot of pain. It's hard to get out of bed. It's hard to eat. It's been tough," Coultas said.
"Just having all these people, my wife, my family, it's helped a lot. But there are nine families out there a lot worse off than me."
The crash on Aug. 5 killed nine men, seven of them from Grayback Forestry in Grants Pass. He was the most seriously hurt of four survivors when a Carson Helicopter S-61 went down in the Trinity National Forest during a wildfire.
Coultas was in the co-pilots seat. He suffered third-degree burns on about 35 percent of his body, and the rest of him was a mass of first- and second-degree burns.
In the intensive care unit at U.C. Davis Medical Center in Sacramento, his left arm looked like a hot dog left on the grill too long. His head was the size of a basketball.
He was mostly sedated for 12 days.
Doctors split the length of his arm open to drain it. On the 13th day Coultas woke up and saw Chris, who left his side just once in 34 days to go make payroll at their Cave Junction Radio Shack and video business.
His sons Matt 15, and Ricci, 22, were also there. His body needed 5,000 calories a day to help healing.
"I drank a lot of burn shakes," he said. "I was a hurting unit. I couldn't roll over. It hurt to breathe."
The chopper lifted off on Aug. 5 in the evening, ferrying firefighters back to camp.
Everything seemed fine, Coultas said. The chopper cleared the trees and tilted forward to gain airspeed, dipped and started to go down, he said.
Coultas said he doesn't remember any shouts, or the impact after the 115-foot drop, but he's sure he escaped out the window after the chopper rolled onto its side.
He doesn't remember unbuckling his belt. He didn't see the other three survivors get out either.
"I'm running, I'm on fire and I'm beating on my legs and rolling around trying to get it out. I finally got my flight suit down to my ankles and put the fire out. I could feel and hear the helicopter burning behind me.
"I looked down at my left hand and my pinkie and finger were just bone. The skin was hanging off my hand."
When help arrived, Coultas told firefighters to get the rest of the guys out of the chopper. Then it exploded.
He got his first morphine 45 minutes later.
"There are parts I hope I don't remember," he said.
Eventually 75 percent of his skin was either burned or removed to form grafts.
After 34 days in the ICU, he came home.
Recovery from burns involves hours of stretching to keep skin from binding and shrinking. The healing skin is now pulling his head down. He does weekly therapy in Grants Pass.
"Just when you think you've got something healed up, the skin pulls back and opens up another wound," he said.
But he can now touch the thumb and pinkie on his left hand, and use all of his fingers. Once a month he visits the U.C. Davis Medical Center in Sacramento.
For two weeks his neighbors brought food. A recent benefit with about 300 people also lifted his spirits. The recovery could take months.
"I can't cut wood, or work on my motorcycle, and I can't even change a light bulb. It's a pretty helpless feeling. But at least now I can put on my clothes, and get in and out of the shower."
He's gone from not being able to hold a fork to signing his own name, wife Chris said. Coultas looks forward to Thanksgiving and visits by family members.
He's not sure he'll be able to fly again.
"I'm not an overly religious person, but I felt something down inside me in the ICU," he said. "It was a comforting, soothing feeling. I knew I was going to be OK. I know this accident changed me. I don't take things for granted now."
"I'm going to look a little funny, but I'm going to be OK.