Rehberg Staff Member Seriously Injured After Boat Crash

By Beacon Staff

Montana Congressman Denny Rehberg is lucid and recovering from a three-hour surgery on a broken ankle Friday and a fracture around his eye after his involvement in a boat crash near Bigfork Thursday night, but two members of his staff suffered more serious injuries.

Rehberg, two staffers, Kalispell Republican state Sen. Greg Barkus and his wife, Kathleen were hospitalized in stable condition after their 22-foot boat ran into rocks in the dark near Wayfarer’s State Park.

Dustin Frost, Rehberg’s state director, suffered a head injury and doctors at Kalispell Regional Medical Center are currently monitoring his condition, according to Erik Iverson, a family friend and former chief of staff for Rehberg who held a conference call with reporters Saturday morning.

“It’s a significant brain injury, but it’s being termed as survivable and it’s probably not going to require surgery,” Iverson said. “They’re keeping him sedated as doctors monitor the pressure on his brain.”

Iverson said he has visited Frost several times, and in some instances he responded to verbal communication by opening his eyes and moving his hand.

“These are all positive signs,” Iverson said. “He’s 27 years old and he’s strong.”

Kristin Smith, Rehberg’s deputy chief of staff, suffered bruises and lacerations to her face and head in the crash. She also fractured her nose, wrist, foot and ribs. She is expected to be released within a couple of days.

“But she’s doing well,” Iverson said. “She’s up and walking around.”

Rehberg was in surgery from 12:30 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. Friday after a serious break to his left ankle. The doctor recovered several bone fragments from the joint, Iverson said, then used plates and screws to repair the ankle. During that surgery the doctor also reopened a laceration on Rehberg’s knee that was stitched up Thursday night, cleaned it, and re-stitched it.

A neurosurgeon also determined Rehberg suffered a “mild, closed head injury,” Iverson said, where a blow to his head caused “a small, frontal fracture to his left eye orbit.”

“His surgery went very well,” Iverson said. “Denny should be released within the next couple of days.”

Iverson did not have permission to discuss the medical condition of Barkus and his wife Kathleen, other than to say they continued to be in stable condition, and were alert and awake.

Greg Barkus, the owner of the boat, was driving when it crashed, returning from a party at a Lakeside dock on the way to Marina Cay resort in Bigfork, where Rehberg was staying that night. The event was not a fundraiser, nor was it hosted by any one person, Iverson said, calling it a “family event” where dinner was served outside.

Rehberg’s blood alcohol level was 0.05, below the legal limit, according to KRMC’s doctors, Iverson said. “At no point was Denny ever driving the boat.”

An investigation into the crash is ongoing. Boating experts for the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks are conducting the investigation, with assistance from accident reconstruction specialists from the Montana Highway Patrol. The Flathead County Sheriff’s Detective Division is conducting interviews with witnesses and collecting and submitting evidence to the Montana State Crime Lab.

A spokesman for FWP said investigators will try to determine the speed of impact, whether there were the correct number of life jackets on the boat and whether passengers were wearing the life jackets, and whether drugs or alcohol were involved, among other factors.

The Lake County Sheriff’s Dispatch received a call at approximately 10:20 p.m. Thursday night about a boat crash just south of Wayfarer’s State Park. Campers at the park heard the crash. When they came up on the scene, they immediately called 911. The boat was found fully out of the water, facing uphill on a steep slope of solid rock. Both Bigfork Ambulance and the ALERT helicopter transported patients to KRMC.

Rehberg’s wife Jan arrived at KRMC Friday and was also present on the conference call. She said Rehberg is ready to leave the hospital but doctors will release him in the next couple of days, when he can make the drive back to their home in Billings. Rehberg is scheduled to return to Washington D.C. after the August Congressional recess on Sept. 7, and Jan Rehberg could not say whether he still planned to stick to that schedule. Rehberg had been scheduled to hold town hall meetings in Cut Bank and Shelby on Friday. Both were canceled.

Jan Reherg praised the emergency personnel who responded to the accident, as well as the staff at KRMC. She also thanked Montana Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester for calling to inquire about everyone’s condition and urge a speedy recovery.

“Rest is probably the main ingredient for their health,” Jan Rehberg said. “We’re all trying to be pretty careful about not interfering too much.”

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