Montana Congressman Denny Rehberg arrived back in Washington D.C. Tuesday and is back on the job, recuperating from injuries suffered in an Aug. 27 boat crash on Flathead Lake.
In an hour-long conference call with reporters Wednesday morning, Rehberg said he was getting around the Capitol on a broken ankle using his late grandmother’s walker and preparing to hear President Barack Obama’s address to Congress later in the day on health care overhaul legislation. When asked if his experience as a patient changed any of his opinions on the ongoing debate over the U.S. health care system, Rehberg said it reinforced for him how hospital emergency rooms never turn anyone away, often providing care for people who cannot afford it.
But he also offered his own perspective on the events of the night leading up to the crash that injured him and four others, including Kalispell state Sen. Greg Barkus, who was driving the boat, his wife Kathleen Barkus, and Rehberg’s staffers Kristin Smith and Dustin Frost.
Frost, Rehberg’s state director, remains hospitalized at Kalispell Regional Medical Center following a brain injury, but KRMC vice president Jim Oliverson said he is conscious, initiating conversation and could be released into “rehabilitation,” a lesser level of care, in as early as a week.
Barkus is reportedly back in Kalispell after undergoing surgery on a broken pelvis in Seattle.
In recounting the events of the evening leading up to the crash, Rehberg’s description reinforced much of what a spokesman for the Republican congressman told reporters in the days immediately following the crash.
After meeting with hospital officials in Polson and on the Flathead Reservation, Rehberg said Barkus picked him and his two staffers up at Marina Cay Resort in Bigfork around 5:30 p.m. and took them up the Flathead River to visit a friend who lives in Eagle Bend. It was a short stop, and the group then headed to the west shore for dinner at The Docks restaurant in Lakeside, arriving around 6:30 p.m.
Rehberg said he spent much of the evening talking to people on issues including health care, carbon control legislation and taxes, referring to the event as “a working dinner for me.”
He had steak and potatoes, and ordered a pint of Cold Smoke beer from the bar, a Scotch Ale-style beer produced by the Kettle House brewery in Missoula, which Rehberg said he had never tried before.
“That probably lasted me a couple of hours,” Rehberg said. “It’s more something social to have in your hands.”
Eventually someone bought him another round, before he finished his first drink, Rehberg said, and he does not recall if he finished the first beer, estimating he consumed less than two drinks over the course of a three-hour meal. His blood alcohol content, taken three hours after the crash, was 0.05, below the legal limit. He was not driving the boat at any time.
Flathead County Attorney Ed Corrigan said Barkus was drinking the night of the crash, and authorities have yet to release his BAC level the night of the crash. Rehberg said he did not see whether Barkus was drinking at the restaurant, and did not see any sign that he was impaired at all as the group got back on the boat at around 10 p.m.
“I saw no signs of impairment at all, none,” Rehberg said.
Earlier in the evening, Rehberg said Kathy Barkus had a small container of margarita in a cooler on the boat when they picked up the group in Bigfork.
Corrigan has also said investigators believe the boat was doing 40 miles per hour or faster when it crashed, but Rehberg said it felt much slower, more like 25 miles per hour.
“I’ve water-skied,” Rehberg said. “I wouldn’t suggest that this was water-skiing speed.”
Barkus directed Frost to install a stand-up light on the back of the boat prior to leaving Lakeside, and made sure lights on the front of the boat were operational, Rehberg recalled. As they headed across the lake, the moon was up and half full, and Barkus was using a GPS unit to head east. He was standing up behind the wheel and talking to the group about how varied the depth was at different parts of Flathead Lake. Rehberg said Barkus was adjusting the GPS unit, because what he saw on the monitor wasn’t matching up with the terrain, and commented on how dark the night was along the east shore.
Kathy Barkus was sitting on the steps leading below decks, Rehberg was in the passenger seat, Smith had just moved up behind him and Frost was at the back of the boat when they hit. Rehberg said he saw no lights anywhere near the shore where the crash occurred.
“I did not lose consciousness, although I was pretty bruised up like a rag doll,” Rehberg said. “The first thing that goes through your mind is ‘What happened? Where did the rocks come from?’”
Rehberg said Frost and Barkus, who suffered the most serious injuries were lying on the shore. Smith, who suffered several fractures and cuts, was directing the campers who arrived to assist to the most injured people. Rehberg said Kathy Barkus was in the boat, and he managed to climb out of the back of the boat, stepping into the lake to gain his footing with a shattered ankle, then made his way up the shore himself.
Doctors eventually told him the only thing holding his foot on was his cowboy boot, Rehberg said, adding that he is currently on aspirin to prevent blood clotting as his ankle heals. He downplayed any pain he suffered, however, comparing it to an impacted tooth or appendicitis.
As for looking back on the accident, Rehberg said he wishes everyone a full recovery, but remains focused on returning to work.
“Accidents happen and you think about it and you second-guess it and you wonder,” he said. “I’m not to that point yet.”
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