SQUAW VALLEY, Calif. (MyNews4. com & KRNV) -- As president and CEO of Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows, home to some of the world’s greatest skiers and extreme athletes, Andy Wirth is no stranger to challenges. He is a father, a seasoned executive, an avid trail runner and all-around athlete.
When Wirth took up skydiving as a hobby after moving to Tahoe, little did he know that it would nearly kill him.
"I had learned how to skydive, got certified through my friends at red bull and down at Perris, California, and got what's called AFF, which is accelerated free fall, that level of licensing, which mean that I'm licensed now to jump out of any airplane alone," said Wirth.
Jumping out of planes became one of Wirth’s favorite pastimes. On October 13, Wirth and some of his closest friends, including RedBull pro athlete J.T. Holmes and the late Timmy Dutton, set off for a fun day of skydiving. Prior to that day, Wirth said he had jumped about three dozen times.
“J.T. Holmes, Timmy Dutton and I had jumped quite a bit together and we had decided to spend the weekend jumping. We had gone down to Davis, Calif. There is a drop zone down there, and so we were jumping there on Saturday, and were planning on jumping there on Sunday, but we got blown out. They weren't flying that day."
Not to be deterred, they headed south to Perris, California. "The flight plan was to have some fun in the air, do some spins and then track away in formation."
Wirth jumped out of the plane, and after a few moments of freefall, realized something was wrong. "It was a few minutes after I pitched open my canopy that I realized things weren't lined up well. And that was primarily because the drop zone was quite far away. And also I had a head wind coming to the drop zone as opposed to a tail wind."
The winds had once again shifted making landing extremely difficult. With time running out before he would hit the ground and his options limited, Andy decided to land in a vineyard, surrounded by metal stakes, wires, and massive cabernet vines.
"It came to my mind pretty quickly that I was going to land in the rows of these vines and I lined up on it. That's when I landed, and tragically one of the poles they used to support the vines took off my arm."
Disoriented and profusely bleeding, Wirth, a former volunteer firefighter and EMT, quickly went into survival mode. "It didn't take me long to realize that I was in a bad spot, because my arm was not really attached to my body any longer. My second thought was looking down at my arm, frankly, I was bleeding out. Within moments, I realized that my brachial artery, I had to slow the bleeding there. It was a bit of a mess to say the least. All of the tissue was torn off my arm as well as the arm was violently dislocated at the elbow."
Realizing that he had just moments to live, Wirth did the unthinkable. "I would have liked to have stopped the bleeding, but I was only able to slow the bleeding through what's called direct pressure, and in a motion, I took my fist and in a remarkably uncomfortable, if not painful, moment, I shoved my hand up inside my arm pit."
With his own fist lodged inside of a gaping hole where is arm once was, Wirth began reciting lyrics to one his favorite songs, "Just Breathe" by Eddie Vedder. "In that case it came to me, helped me deal with trauma helped me deal with the shock gave my mind something to focus on, but those lyrics led me into a place where I was able to not only reconcile dying which was very much real and kind of plainly there that's actually what ended up becoming a narrative for me living that afternoon."
For nearly fifteen minutes, Andy laidy among the vines, feeling his life slowly slip away. "I thought very deeply about my children, about my wife, I took stock in what's been an incredible life. I didn't think too much about the pain of my loss, what that would mean to them, but I found peace in life that I had led, tremendous pride in who they were."
By applying pressure to his wound, Andy had given himself precious moments. A woman with whom he had been skydiving with found him nearly 15 minutes after he collided with the earth. Andy instructed her to remove his altimeter, and apply a tourniquet using the strap.
"When Amanda came to me, and I asked her to call 9-11, I circumvented the typical protocol and I said, 'I need you to get a helicopter right away', Wirth remembers. "And I said 'if they question you, tell them it's an EMT from Colorado who's demanding, not asking, but demanding for a helicopter to get in the air right away.' Because I'll need it and I knew that.
"Finally when I got to the helicopter I was kind of done with the battle, I had given it everything I had and at that point I looked over to the flight nurse. I remember looking back and the sun thankfully was right in my eyes and I'll never forget that moment when the closed the doors and the song stopped.
"After waking up realizing my arm was there, I was now in a post-operative world where of a place where I had never been in my entire life, I had worked a lot around trauma, but never in this space, and so now my thoughts became about what's it like to heal."
Thanks to his quick thinking and strong survival instincts, Wirth made it to the hospital alive. After nearly 20 hours in the operating room, a team of surgeons were able to save his mangled arm. But his journey was only beginning. He spent nearly 3 months in two different hospitals, much of that time in the ICU.
Since that fateful day in October, healing has been Wirth’s #1 priority. His days are spent in intensive physical therapy, occupational therapy, working with acupuncturist and massage therapist. He spends more time with his wife and children, and works tirelessly to rehabilitate the limb he nearly lost.
With a positive attitude and a sense of humor that keeps those around him smiling, even when the pain is unbearable, Wirth is one step closer to a full recovery every day. He is incredibly grateful for the medical professionals who have been a part of his recovery.
"To them, it's their job and it's what they do, but in this case, it literally gave me my life and it gave me my right arm back and will eternally be indebted to them. I make that clear to them every time I see them on checkups. In some cases, they get a little bit shy about the appreciation, but I frankly jam it in their faces anyway, and I tell them how appreciative I am of what they've done.
"I am very thankful to be alive, I know how close I was to dying and without their skill I wouldn't be here."
By his side throughout his entire recovery has been his wife, Karen. "You can just see by his attitude he's always very positive, he always just gives 150% to doing better, getting better, doing his physical therapy. We certainly have had moments of grief and mourning and if we could turn the clock back to having Andy before the accident and not have to deal with all of the issues surrounding his arm we certainly would do that. But there have been great lessons along the way too. Lessons about being grateful for things you do have, because as long as someone is still here, there's hope an opportunity and potential."
Shortly after the accident, Wirth told Karen that he would never skydive again. He has set his sights on competing in the Lake Tahoe 70.3 IronMan triathlon in the fall of 2015. The event organizers have promised Wirth bib #1.