Big Sur artist broke his neck during raging storms on Highway 1. Here’s how he was rescued – Monterey Herald
Noted Big Sur artist Peter Fels is recovering in a local hospital after undergoing surgery to repair a broken neck.
The chain of events that landed the 77-year-old sculptor, known for his massive, eccentric iron gates and fireplaces, in the emergency room involves a car crash, a highway closure and a California National Guard helicopter.
“I f—d up my truck and I f—d up myself,” Fels explained succinctly.
Big Sur artist injured in car crash
Speaking from his hospital bed on Thursday, Fels explained what happened, with occasional interjections from his wife, ceramics artist Phoebe Palmer.
On Dec. 30, Fels drove from his home on the southern Big Sur coast to San Luis Obispo to buy medicine for his wife, who had tested positive for COVID-19.
San Luis Obispo “was the only place I could find” the medicine, he said.
Fels was heading home after making his purchase when the brakes on his pickup truck suddenly failed at the intersection of Highway 1 and Yerba Buena Street in north Morro Bay. The vehicle crashed.
Fels learned later that “the accident had ripped the muscles holding my head and arms up,” he said.
Fels and his vehicle wound up at Chuck’s Towing in Morro Bay, but then he had to find a way home.
“They were very, very nice at Chuck’s, and went out of their way to find Phoebe,” he recalled. “I was sort of in shock, and couldn’t remember her cellphone number. By a circuitous route, they managed to find it and call her.”
Palmer drove down in their car, and picked her husband up and took him to the emergency room.
Palmer, 75, said, “they sent him home with no neck brace or anything, telling him to take time to recover.”
Landslides close Highway 1
A few days later, on Jan. 4, Caltrans fully closed a 40-mile stretch of Highway 1 in southern Monterey County and northern San Luis Obispo County that heavy rainstorms left littered with landslides, slipouts, fallen rocks and debris.
The southern closure point was at Ragged Point, somewhat south of Fels and Palmer’s home.
On Jan. 5. a large landslide covered the road at Polar Star, which is about a mile south of Ragged Point. Caltrans then moved the highway closure point further south to the elephant seal rookery parking lot, about four miles north of San Simeon.
Although Caltrans provided a resupply convoy to residents and businesses on Jan. 13, the agency said Thursday that it’s not yet safe to do another convoy because of subsequent slides and bluff instability.
“Caltrans is aware of the dire circumstances being faced by residents, as well as our own crew, within the closure area,” the agency said in a news release. “Caltrans has made the resumption of resupply convoys a priority … once roadway conditions permit such travel.”
“New slides are occurring every day,” Caltrans said, “even in areas where they have not previously occurred, due to the level of saturation of the soil due to the extended period of inclement weather.”
Condition worsens after accident
For a few days after Fels got back home, Palmer said, “he was doing alright for a while, but then his condition deteriorated.”
“I was slowly going downhill,” he said.
About two weeks after his truck crashed, on Jan. 15, his situation became life threatening.
“After losing the strength in my legs and hands, I was trying to climb up to the house from the studio,” Fells recalled. “Phoebe was helping me stay upright, because my legs didn’t want me to do that, despite my expectations.”
It didn’t work.
“We kind of collapsed,” Fels said, “I fell over onto some planters and a stone sculpture, which were not very soft.”
In the fall, he said, “I finished breaking my neck.”
Helicopter rescues Central Coast man
That presented a major problem for Fels and Palmer, who have lived on the southern Big Sur coast for 37 years. Their home is inside the current Highway 1 closure area.
“I couldn’t lift him, so I called some neighbors,” Palmer said.
They included Luke Granger, John Galuszka, Big Sur Fire firefighter Thomas Leahy and his wife, nurse Megan Dubinicka.
They “formulated a plan to carry him over the slide on a stretcher, to wait for the ambulance from Cambria,” Palmer said. “But the plan was nixed; we were not allowed to go through.”
So, Leahy “started seeking a helicopter to fly Peter out,” she said. “For various reasons, including the weather, his requests were denied. Finally, after the whole day, about 5 p.m. the Air National Guard agreed to fly in.”
Fels said, “Thomas absolutely busted his butt for hours, trying to get me out properly. He called up all the people he could, and finally browbeat the guard into sending a helicopter.
“It was a long, noisy, uncomfortable ride from there to Sierra Vista” Regional Medical Center in San Luis Obispo, he said.
Neck surgery at SLO hospital followed by recovery
After Fels arrived at the hospital, emergency room doctors stabilized his condition, did a raft of tests to determine what was going on and then transferred him to a room for treatment.
After the neurosurgeon studied his case, Fels underwent neck surgery on Wednesday.
“They screwed my head on straight again,” Fels said in typical fashion.
An exhausted but upbeat Palmer said Thursday that her husband is “already so much better since the operation, in just one day! He’s as amusing as ever.”
She assumes that he’ll be transferred to a rehabilitation facility for physical therapy, but she doesn’t yet know where that will be or when the move will happen.
Palmer got a bit emotional Thursday as she thanked all the people who helped her talented husband.
“The Ragged Point Inn was extremely nice and gracious,” Palmer added. “Cambria Fire Department offered help in receiving Peter on the downhill side of the slide, but we couldn’t get him there.”
Palmer said the therapists and nurses at Sierra Vista “have been outstanding (and) gone out of their way” to help her husband.
“The first day after his surgery, he had two physical therapy sessions, and the nurses used a sling to put him in a wheelchair to take him outside to the courtyard” for a much-needed emotional and psychological boost, she said.
The couple are especially thankful for Leahy and Big Sur Fire, a nonprofit, community-based volunteer emergency response department that’s been serving the area for nearly five decades.
“They tried every avenue to get him out of there,” she said, “but came up against one obstacle after the other.”