Man critically injured in rollover crash on Highway 40 returns home
Steamboat Pilot & Today
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — In the early morning hours of Dec. 21, Steamboat Springs resident Chris Thomas found himself fighting to stay alive after his 2008 Audi A4 hit a patch of ice on U.S. Highway 40 and traveled off the roadway, ending up at the bottom of a steep embankment near the Fox Creek Estates subdivision.
“I remember flying through the tree tops off the side of the road and thinking to myself that this isn’t going to go well,” Thomas said Wednesday, talking for one of the first times since the accident that nearly claimed his life. “I remember the big sound of the impact, and then, I lost consciousness at impact.”
When Thomas came to, he said the lights in his car didn’t work, but he could see cars passing on the highway. He decided he needed to get out of the car and find a place where passing motorists could see him. He also knew he was severely injured and needed to get help.
He made a choice to kick out the window and climb out of his badly damaged car. But when his feet landed in the snow, he knew he’d made a mistake.
“Basically, as soon as I got out of the car, I realized that I was in no shape to go anywhere,” Thomas said. “I didn’t realize how deep the snow was or how steep the climb to get out was.”
The doors on the car where smashed, his boots and coat were in the trunk and he had no idea where his cell phone was. There was also no way for him to get back in the car once he left. With few options, Thomas tried to yell for help but, eventually, decided to conserve his energy. He huddled up next to the engine were it was still warm. He was dressed in a T-shirt and had no hat or gloves.
“I told myself that I had done everything that I could do, but that didn’t mean that I was giving up,” Thomas said.
Thomas drifted off to sleep, and it would be several more hours before a passing motorist somehow noticed his car down the embankment and called 911.
Rescuers had to use a five-to-one rope system to haul Thomas to the road from the crash scene. He was loaded into an ambulance and taken to UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center.
In addition to the broken jaw, broken collar bone, broken rib and broken eye socket, Thomas also fractured his C7 vertebrae and had four other fractures in his back. He also was suffering from a nerve injury that had paralyzed his left bicep.
When rescuers got to Thomas, he was severely hypothermic with multi-system trauma. He needed to be flown to a Level-1 trauma center, but his body temperature needed to be increased before that could happen, and the weather in the area was not cooperating.
Crews had requested a Classic Air Medical helicopter to fly Thomas to Denver, but weather grounded the helicopter while Chris was being stabilized. He was later transported to Yampa Valley Regional Airport, where a fixed-wing Classic Air Medical plane flew him to Denver.
Thomas’ wife, Kendra Thomas, was in Florida at the time of the accident, which is one of the reasons nobody was alarmed when he didn’t return home. Chris had left his job late that night after a work meeting and drove a couple of co-workers home before heading up the pass.
“I got a call from the case manager at the emergency department who explained what happened, how bad it was, how critical it was,” Kendra said. “Nobody at the emergency room was hopeful. Everyone on the phone kept telling me, ‘He’s so cold. We don’t know if he is going to make it because he is so cold.’”
Chris’ core temperature was around 76 degrees, and he went into cardiac arrest multiple times while he was being warmed up.
Meanwhile, Kendra was able to get a flight back to Denver and met her husband at Denver Health late the same night of the accident.
Chris would spend the next 25 days moving through different departments at Denver Health. He started in intensive care before moving to a progressive care unit and then onto a rehabilitation unit where he went through occupational, physical and speech therapy.
The crash did not impact Chris’ speech or cognitive functions, but he did suffer severe frostbite on both hands and will head to Denver next week where he will lose four fingers on his right hand and part of his index finger and middle finger on his left hand.
“I’m super grateful for so many things,” Chris said. “There are a lot of silver linings and a lot of things to still be grateful for. I’m glad to be here, and it’s definitely been a humbling experience, and it’s taught me not to take anything for granted.”
Chris is currently being helped in his recovery by Kendra, his parents and on-site medical help.
Kendra said they are thankful for the community support they have received from co-workers, friends and strangers since the crash. She is also grateful for the men and women who saved her husband.
“We still don’t know how the 911 caller even saw the wreck,” Kendra said. “It was a miracle.”
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Interstate 70 through Glenwood Canyon may be closed intermittently Wednesday through the weekend, as highway crews break down and remove boulders and patch potholes caused by Tuesday’s rock slide.