In the week following the high-impact crash of a boat on Flathead Lake – carrying Congressman Denny Rehberg and Kalispell state Sen. Greg Barkus among others – into an outcropping of rocks near Wayfarer’s State Park, a broad outline of what occurred on that night has begun to emerge.
And while the incident was undeniably tragic, it is also a stroke of luck that the boat struck the jagged shoreline, studded with cliffs dropping into the water at sheer angles, in such a way that the five passengers survived.
“If he had hit anywhere else, that boat would have just exploded and all five people would have been killed,” Flathead County Attorney Ed Corrigan said.
Many questions remain, and the full results of the investigation into the Aug. 27 crash have yet to be released as of this writing. Nor have charges been filed against the boat’s driver, Barkus, though Corrigan said last week Barkus had been drinking and the boat was traveling 40 miles per hour or faster upon impact.
Authorities have subpoenaed Barkus’ medical records. The state crime lab has sent two blood samples, one taken by doctors at Kalispell Regional Medical Center and the other by the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, away to a Pennsylvania lab for analysis in order to avoid a conflict of interest because the official running the Montana lab is a fellow state legislator. The results of Barkus’ blood alcohol content, expected this week, will likely determine whether Corrigan will file felony charges.
Barkus, meanwhile, was transported to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle last week to undergo surgery on a broken pelvis after spending more than five days in intensive care at KRMC where he received treatment for his pelvis, broken ribs, lacerations to his head, arms and legs, and required several transfusions of blood, according to Ken Barkus, his son.
Dustin Frost, Rehberg’s state director, remains at KRMC in stable condition with a severe brain injury, and was reportedly moved to a less critical care unit earlier this week – a sign of positive progress. Doctors have him sedated and are keeping track of the pressure on his brain, but based on statements it remains unclear whether Frost has regained consciousness since the crash.
“Dustin Frost has suffered a severe closed head injury and is requiring aggressive monitoring and treatment,” Robert Hollis, a neurosurgeon treating Frost, said in a statement. “He is showing slow improvements in his status but still requires intensive nursing care. Further recovery is anticipated.”
Kathleen Barkus was released from the hospital the week following the crash, and Rehberg, along with his deputy chief of staff, Kristin Smith, were released from KRMC on the Monday following the crash. Rehberg suffered a severe broken left ankle and a fracture to the area around his right eye. Smith also suffered several fractures and lacerations. Both are on crutches and Rehberg announced last week he would travel via Amtrak, because he can’t fly, to Washington D.C. in time for Congress to resume Sept. 8.
In the hours prior to the crash, Rehberg spent the day in Polson meeting with medical administrators to discuss heath care reform. That Thursday evening, Barkus and his wife picked up Rehberg, Frost and Smith where they were staying at Marina Cay Resort in Bigfork to take them to a dinner and reception at The Docks restaurant in Lakeside.
Barkus, the state Senate majority whip in the 2009 Legislature, and Rehberg have been friends for years, and the evening was a chance “to meet some people that Denny didn’t know and reconnect with old friends,” according to Erik Iverson, the former chief of staff for Rehberg who spoke with reporters in the days following the accident.
Iverson described the gathering as a family event, not a political fundraiser and not hosted by any one person. Dinner was served, and Rehberg recalled spending a portion of the evening talking to children there about the upcoming school year, Iverson said.
At around 10 p.m., the group climbed into Barkus’ boat to return to Bigfork. The evening was clear and warm, 71 degrees. The winds along the west shore of Flathead Lake were 2-3 miles per hour with the occasional 5 mile per hour gust, according to the National Weather Service.
According to Iverson, Rehberg recalled sitting on the left side of the boat, across from Barkus on the right side, who was driving. During the roughly 15-minute ride, Rehberg was facing the rear talking to Smith and Kathleen Barkus who were huddled behind him. Frost was at the back of the boat by himself, “hunkered down” due to the wind, Iverson said.
Until the investigation reveals more, it’s unclear how the accident occurred, but Rehberg described the moments leading up to the crash as such: “He thinks it was Kristin (Smith) made mention of, ‘It looks like we’re going to hit something,’” Iverson said. “He turned around and there was impact.”
Martha Paridaen was roasting marshmallows around a campfire with her son and daughter at Wayfarer’s State Park when she heard a crash that “sounded like a big tree falling.” It was preceded by a noise she has heard many times before on the river near her home in Cowley, Alberta: The “metal on rock sound” of a boat’s prop scraping something.
Earlier in the day Paridaen’s children had been swimming and jumping off the rocks where the sound of the crash occurred.
“I thought, ‘Oh my God, if a boat hit that, they’re toast,’” she said. “I’m thinking this is bad.”
Paridaen stayed in camp to shield her children from what she was sure was a brutal accident.
Other campers reportedly rushed to the aid of the victims. Iverson said Smith recalled one woman giving her shirt to staunch bleeding. One of the campers called 911 at 10:24 p.m. In his investigative report, officer Phillip Greer of the Flathead County Sheriff’s office said when he arrived on the scene, he saw the 20-plus foot boat “lying near vertical, completely out of the water, and wedged between two rocks.”
One woman was in the boat receiving care, according to Greer’s report, and the other four victims were on the rocks near the water in need of medical attention. The Bigfork Fire Department arrived on the scene shortly afterward and the sheriff’s deputies began assisting paramedics in lifting the victims up the cliff. An ALERT helicopter arrived on the scene to take one of the victims to KRMC, but it is unknown who that person was. Rehberg was transported to KRMC via ambulance. His blood alcohol level, taken at 12:58 a.m. was 0.054, below the legal limit of 0.08
Iverson said Rehberg called him from the ambulance, and when news of the crash broke the following morning, Iverson was already at the hospital, acting as a spokesman for the congressman. Republican state Sen. Gary Perry of Manhattan, a close friend of Barkus, also headed to KRMC, and stayed there much of the weekend.
KRMC began operating under a procedure it had in place for when high-profile patients are at the hospital with a room set up for media, and guards stationed at certain hallways and stairwells to restrict access to the victims.
Wayfarer’s State Park, meanwhile was roped off as the investigation was conducted jointly by FWP, the Flathead County Sheriff’s office, and Montana Highway Patrol investigators who specialize in accident reconstruction. The case was turned over to the Flathead County Attorney’s office last week.
From 12:30 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. the next day, Rehberg underwent surgery on a shattered left ankle, with the doctor using plates and screws to repair it, and re-stitching a laceration on his leg. 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.”
Rehberg traveled home to Billings with his wife, Jan, the following Monday and has yet to provide an interview with the media.
The severity of Barkus’ injuries was unclear until the end of last week, when his son released a statement. Barkus secured an attorney, Todd Glazier, who would not speak to the media. Records show Barkus was previously pulled over for drunken driving in 2004 by the Montana Highway Patrol. The charge was reduced to reckless driving, to which Barkus pleaded guilty and was ordered to pay a $335 fine and sentenced to attend a driving-and-alcohol course by a Lake County judge. Barkus said at the time his reckless driving was due to worry over the health of his mother.
For now, the victims of the crash remain focused on recovering from the events of Aug. 27.
“The courage of the campers and camp host is greatly appreciated as they saved the lives of all five passengers. In addition, KRMC should be highly commended for all they have done,” Ken Barkus said in a statement. “Finally, when medically able, Greg intends to assist the officials with investigating this terrible accident.”
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