Troop 174

Howard Gussak's Memories of 1984-1985
The Camp Read Accident
Nov. 18, 2004


Howard Gussak

Howard Gussak is an Eagle Scout in Troop 174.  His account largely concerns a harrowing accident as a scout at Camp Read Summer Camp.  Remarkable in his story is his positive, winning attitude and spirit in facing down hardship.

"It was July 28, 1984. I was working as a counselor of the Ecology Department at a Boy Scout Camp. The Boy Scout Camp was located at Brant Lake, upstate NY, near Lake George called Curtis S. Read Scout Reservation, specifically Camp Buckskin.  I was the Assistant Director of the nature lodge under Ed Mccabe. Ed, the director, was a scout from a troop in Yonkers. I was 16, going on 17 at the time.  Mike Kahn and Scott Taillie were working there as CITs (Counselors in Training).  Bob Baca, another kid from the troop had worked earlier but left prior to the incident.

On this particular morning, I was hanging out with my friend Iowa Dave.  He was a big corn fed dude from a Scout Troop in Iowa. Strong as an ox. Anyway, as we were walking, I assassinated him.  We were in the middle of this game called assassination, where there was one boy dubbed the “killer”.  He had to get his prey alone and tell him he was dead.  It was a great game and we were all having fun with it.  As we were walking to the swamp, I was getting frogs and tadpoles for the lodge, I saw this rock structure that I had to climb to get across where I wanted to go. I loved to climb, that's what I do. I ran up to the structure, Dave was behind me, and I started climbing. It was only about 40 feet high, but interesting. I started climbing and about 10 feet up I lost my footing. I grabbed onto an outcropping. This outcropped rock was a 1500 pound boulder. It must have been loosened by the rain we had there. It came loose. I fell the ten feet to the ground onto my right side. Thank God I didn't stay standing, I would be dead now.

That 1500 lb boulder rolled right onto my waist/hip. I heard someone screaming, it sounded far away.  It was me.

My whole lower body was pinned under that rock. Iowa came running over and damned if he didn't try lifting that rock. It did move a little, but I was really under there. I kept on asking Iowa if this was a dream. It was very surreal.

Iowa ran to get help. They called a waterfront emergency with the siren because it was the only way they could get all the staff to one location.  Luckily, where I was located was on the way to the waterfront. I don't know how long it took but a lot of staff showed up. They did keep Mike Kahn and Scott Tallie, away from the immediate scene as they were my closest friends from home.  At least that’s what I was told. The other guys figured it would be too traumatic. It would have been nicer if I was away from the scene too. Think how traumatic it was for me. Phil Fredericks showed up. He was the camp's E.M.T. He kept on talking to me, I was conscious the whole time. They also called in ambulances and rescue workers from the surrounding areas. The staff then started chopping down trees so they could get to me. From what I understand they chopped down something like 12 to 15 trees in 20 minutes.  I do know that Mike and Scott helped.  To be honest I don't know, couldn't see from my position. After the crews arrived they attempted to get me out. They wedged a Jaws of Life (hydraulic rescue tool) under the rock and tried to lever it off of me.  It raised about a foot and fell back onto me. I burst blood vessels around my eyes I screamed so loud.

Strike one.

They decided to get a chain and wrap it around the rock and then around a tree. They attempted again to lift it. It fell on me again.

Strike two.

At this time Ed (McCabe) ran across the rock to get a better grip.  His dad was a funeral director. I asked him if he was trying to drum up business for his dad. In the newspaper article a fireman was quoted saying I was "surprisingly calm and composed."  Not much more I can do, and as long as they didn’t move that rock it didn’t hurt.

Finally they decided to get all the counselors, rescue workers and other staff around that rock. There was about 55 in all. It's all they had room for. They all grabbed a piece and lifted.  Phil, grabbed me by the shoulders and pulled me out. This is when I passed out. All the blood that was being kept out of my lower extremities rushed to my legs and out of my brain. I passed out for the first time. When asked later why he yanked me like that, wasn't he afraid of paralyzing me, he said “they all figured I was already going to be paralyzed they had to do it....or I was going to die.”

They rushed me to Glens Falls Hospital, the closest one, and immediately went to work. Surprisingly no real broken bones (My right side landed on a peat moss substance that almost "cushioned" the blow) except for a couple cracked vertebrae. I did have extensive nerve damage and of course some spinal damage. They did a barrage of tests. I couldn't move or feel anything below my waist.

About 12 hours later my parents showed up (don't forget they were 4 hours away in Yorktown Heights). This was when the doctor decided to break the news to us. I was never going to walk again. I looked at the doctor and told him some things I can’t repeat for this article. The doctor said he could understand my reaction, but I had to accept the fact. About a week later, a lot of visits from the other guys from the camp and after a few more profanity laced reactions from me, the doctor said I was too incorrigible for treatment. I was shipped to Northern Westchester Hospital in Mount Kisco, NY.  Phil, the EMT, drove the ambulance with me in the back. They drugged me and it felt sooooooo goooooood.

There, my family practitioner Dr. Richard Klein, came and spoke to me. He said that if I really wanted to, I will walk. About a week later I moved my right big toe. Dr. Klein gave me a certificate of Toe Movement. I still have it. It's kind of ironic that is was my right toe, because my right side was the slowest in coming back.

I needed something to do.  I wanted to be an Eagle Scout.  I was already on the Trail to Eagle.  I had all my merit badges, and had my time in rank (Life).  Now I just needed a project.  I started writing up a proposal to redo the baseball field in the back of Thomas Jefferson Elementary School.  This was to include the re-seeding of the field, patching the fence, re-align and enhance the base paths, benches and a portable scoreboard that would be stored in the school.  I wrote up the proposal while in the hospital.  It eventually got accepted, but not until after I got out of my next destination.

I was at Mount Kisco for about a month, when I was transferred to Blythedale Children's Rehabilitation Hospital in Valhalla, NY. I was 17 now, my birthday is in September (27th). This is where I met J.J. (Candido D.), an extreme asthmatic, John L., a black kid that broke both hips playing football and Gary (don't remember his last name) who was hit by a car, landed on his head and would be in a wheelchair for the rest of his life. These guys were my roommates and my support group.

My therapist was Ms. Gigi Wolf and she was beautiful. I loved it when she would help stretch my legs, but it hurt to do my physical therapy. The head doctor there was a Physiologist. His name was Dr. Sydney Carter. One of the leading Physiologists in the country. He's dead now. He was ancient back then. He explained to me that nerves regenerate themselves, something like two or three inches a year. There are miles of nerves in our body. I had extensive nerve damage and I had to learn how to compensate. I did.

I don't know how, I don't know why, but the nerves re-routed somehow and I was starting to get motion and feeling. It felt like when your hands are asleep and it starts to wake up. The pins and needle feeling. I had that for seven months.

I went from a wheelchair, to a walker, to crutches to a cane. When I was released in January 1985, I went back to Lakeland High School. I put the cane in my locker. Refused to use it.  Got in trouble for not using it.

I started going back to scout meetings.  They were in Grace Lutheran Church at this time.  I dug out the proposal for my project and went to Steve Taillie, our Scoutmaster.  Then I went before a committee and they okayed the project.  Myself, along with several scouts in the troop, Mike Kahn, Rick Kahn, Scott Taillie, Chris Millette, Robert Baca, Andy Solow and John Parsons put in over 100 hours.  The project was completed in the spring and I obtained the rank of Eagle Scout in June 1985, three months before I was to turn 18 and be ineligible.

I graduated high school and the following year I went to Plattsburgh State University. I pledged a fraternity in college that was athletic (number one fraternity on campus) and pledging was based on Army Physical Fitness. I did it. It hurt again.  After I graduated college in 1989, for a couple of years I was drifting from job to job. I decided to join the Army National Guard, specifically the infantry.  I needed the discipline. They didn't know about my accident. I was the slowest runner in my company, but fast enough to pass the APFT (Army Physical Fitness Test). I was in pain, but I passed in August 1992. They kept me active for a while because of the Storm. Desert Storm was winding down but I did my part. Afterwards, I went to Air Assault, where I learned to rappel out of helicopters. You want to hear the ironic thing. I was attached to a unit with the motto "Climb to Glory".

Climb to Glory......  Go figure.

I still have a few problems associated with the accident. One leg is unnoticeably shorter than the other. You really can't tell except when I'm tired I have a slight limp. This also affects me when I run. I get back spasms because my spine is not straight. I also have limited feeling in my thighs. I can pierce the skin of my thighs and not feel it.

I live now in Westchester County with my wife of ten years, Jodi, where we own a beautiful townhouse. I currently work as a Lieutenant with the Department of Justice, specifically the Bureau of Prisons.  I’ve been there for nine years.  I still have to be quite physically active, and have never and will never let what happened affect me adversely."

-- Written by Howard Gussak

Photo by James L.

Boy Scout Troop 174, Yorktown, NY.