This was the phone call no father wants.
“When that phone call comes in at 6 o’clock in the morning,” said Mississippi Coast Coliseum Executive Director Matt McDonnell, “When you are awakened and the voice at the other end is telling you your son was in a violent car crash on I-10 outside Pensacola and he has been air-lifted to a trauma hospital in Pensacola, Florida, your mind really starts to go to work.”
Harris McDonnell had spent most of the evening of Nov. 15 with his mother at the bedside of his dying grandmother in Mobile. He left to go home to Florida in the early morning hours of Nov. 16 and his mother, Jane, returned home to Ocean Springs.
By 3:30 a.m., his girlfriend, who was waiting on Harris in Crestview, Florida, got worried and began calling police. That touched off a chain of phone calls that ended with the one to Matt McDonnell.
A short time earlier, the pickup driven by Harris had hit a Department of Transportation truck in a work zone. His pickup was horribly mangled and caught fire. He was trapped inside, lucky to be alive.
The next time the McDonnells saw their son, he was heavily sedated and in a room at Sacred Heart Hospital in Pensacola.
“All kind of tubes were running through his nose and in his arms and they had all kind of monitors on him,” Matt McDonnell said. “He had lost a tremendous amount of blood.”
They would find out their son had been trapped for about an hour and a half. They also learned that, as bad as his injuries were, the outcome could have been much worse.
“The vehicle exploded on impact and burst into flames,” said Matt McDonnell. “Fortunately there was an Escambia County deputy working the construction site who was able to get to him within a matter of seconds to put the fire out.”
Fighting the fire
Sgt. Rob Pollock ran to the scene with a fire extinguisher but it ran out of foam with the fire was still burning.
Pollock later would tell the McDonnells that as he was fighting the fire, he remembered another crash victim he hadn’t been able to save. He said he didn’t want that to happen again.
“When my extinguisher ran out, he said, ‘I was very nervous,’ ” McDonnell said he told them.
Other deputies soon arrived with more extinguishers and helped put out the fire. Harris McDonnell was not burned but they had to cut off both doors and cut the cab from the engine compartment to pry it apart and free him.
“His memory of the accident is somewhat vague,” Matt McDonnell said. “He does remember being trapped. The sheriff’s deputy said after the fire is out, their standard protocol is to get as close to the vehicle as they can get and shout out, ‘Hey, are you OK?’ They were not expecting to get any response. My son shouted back, ‘No, I’m not OK. I need you to get me out.’ They were very relieved.”
In all, it took four Escambia deputies, firefighters from Ensley, Florida, and the Life Flight paramedics to save Harris. The deputies keep in touch, asking about Harris’ progress.
On Dec. 27, the McDonnells and their son met Pollock and his wife for dinner.
“They’ll be people we’ll honor and respect all our lives,” he said.
Much uncertainty remains
The weeks after the crash have been a blur of medical consultations, days in ICU, hours of surgeries, more days on the hospital trauma floor, and even more days in the Singing River Hospital rehab wing. His left leg was broken, the knee shattered. His right wrist and left arm were also injured.
“He has made tremendous strides,” said his father. “But the fact is we have such a long way to go and there are so many things we do not have answers for yet.”
Harris McDonnell faces an unknown number of weeks of rehab and more uncertainty. He doesn’t yet know if he’ll be able to keep his left leg; and if he doesn’t lose it, he doesn’t know how much use of it he will have.
But he does know he has a lot of people pulling for him.
Martha’s Vineyard of Pensacola: The Family House gave the McDonnells a place to stay while Harris was in the ICU or on the trauma floor.
Matt McDonnell’s colleagues from his decades on the Board of Aldermen and the man who replaced him on the board built a wheelchair ramp so Harris could get in and out of the house during his Singing River rehab.
“We have a lot of people praying, a lot of people wanting to help,” he said. “We had lot of offers of help. Those are things you can say thank you for, you can show your appreciation but the true meaning of them is very hard to describe.”
What you can do
They have a Facebook page, Rebuilding Harris, that people can check for updates on his progress. There is a page on YouCaring.com where people can donate money. Almost $8,000 had been raised as of Tuesday afternoon.
So for now, Harris has returned to his home in Crestview because that is far closer to his doctors, doctors he had never met before the accident. He’ll be back in Ocean Springs this weekend, his father said, for a benefit.
A group in Ocean Springs has organized a walk along Front Beach from 2-4 p.m. Sunday to raise money for Harris’ mounting medical bills and to raise awareness of how fast life can be changed by an accident that takes away your mobility. Lineup will begin at 1 p.m. in front of the Ocean Springs Yacht Club.
“Everybody walks the bridge,” Matt McDonnell said. “But they wanted to have it on front beach so people who were in wheelchairs and scooters or on walkers could come out and participate. They want to bring to light that there are people who suddenly lose their ability to walk because of accidents like this. That there is help out there to help them get back on with their lives.”
How you can help
What: Charity Walk to support Harris McDonnell in his recovery from a car crash and to bring attention to people who have lost mobility in similar accidents.
Where: Meet Ocean Springs Yacht Club, 100 Front Beach Drive
When: Sunday. Registration starts at 1 p.m., walk starts at 2 p.m.
Who: Anyone who can walk, run bike, stroll, including those who use scooters or wheelchairs.
Donation: $20 early registration or $25 the day of the event
Details: Specialevent2018@gmail.com (include name and phone number to register)
Online: Register at EventBrite.com