Family gives thanks to local first responders following near-death accident

Sean Ellertson
St. James Plaindealer

On Oct. 2 of last year, members of the St. James Emergency Medical Service, St. James Fire and the Watonwan County Sheriff's Office responded to a head-on collision between a semi and a car.

Dispatcher Emily Bentson received the call that night.

"I was new in the position of dispatch, and this the first big accident that I was on my own by myself. The 911 call came in and it was the driver of the [truck] and all I could hear was 'oh my God, hurry,'" recalls Bentson, a voluntary EMT. "I'm on the phone [and] you can't do anything but get everyone else going, so that's where it's hard for me."

Getting everyone going worked.

"As an EMT, you see a lot of people that don't make it. So seeing someone that was in of bad as shape as she was, to be here, is God's work."

"We got the page for a head-on. By the way they described it, there shouldn't have been anyone alive in that car," said then fire chief Brad Orvis, and 21-year member of the department. "When we got there, by the way the car looked, you really couldn't tell that someone was in it. It was underneath the tractor of the semi. After we got everything set in place and trucks where we needed them, the training takes over and you get the job done."

Orvis estimates that in his 21 years, this is only the third time that he has seen someone survive a crash this severe.

The first law enforcement official on the scene was Watonwan County Deputy Brandon Sprenger.

"It was overwhelming, but you have to go back to your training," said Sprenger, a three-year member of the sheriff's department. "As one of the first people there you try to relay as much information as you can over the radio."

Upon arriving at scenes of accidents, Sprenger typically helps direct traffic away from the crash. The area that night was blocked off from Highway 4 all the way back to Highway 30 — approximately 5-7 miles.

The driver of the vehicle, Brooklyn Liesch, 26, of Minneapolis was the sole occupant of the subcompact Chevy Sonic when it collided with the semi driven by a 26-year-old Sleepy Eye man.

"When I first arrived, I thought 'there's no way someone is alive in this car'," said Mason Collier, who was on one of the first firetrucks to arrive on the scene. "We pulled the windshield back and she was in there, responsive. It was pretty shocking."

Collier recalls grabbing Liesch by the hand and asking if she could squeeze his hand.

"And she just gave me a tight little squeeze."

David Anderson was also on one of the first two trucks to arrive.

"The second we got out there I just kind of dug in," said Anderson. "I think I got tunnel vision." 

"That was one of the most traumatic calls I've seen," Jadon Nusbaum of St. James EMS. "Just seeing where the car was, where the semi was, and the way everybody worked and ran up to the car right away — it's honestly amazing she's still here. From what I saw, it was chaos, but everything that went on that night saved her life and she's here today."

Nusbaum helped shuttle necessities from the ambulance to the scene of the crash.

A 32-year veteran of the St. James EMS Service, Tracy Anderson also responded to the call that night.

"Anytime you hear car vs. semi it's not going to be good," said Anderson. "You kind of run through your head, 'we need to do this, and this, and this.' We have an awesome fire department. We can't get to the patient if we can't get into the car, and that's everything they do to help us."

"I just thought there was no way this was going to have a good outcome," Anderson said.

Anderson was making sure Liesch stayed alert and calm as members of the St. James Fire Department cut windows in an attempt to get Liesch out of the wreckage.

"You know you're there on that person's worst day ever," said Anderson. "And to me that's the biggest reward is to be able to help."

After managing to remove Liesch from the vehicle, she was helicoptered to North Memorial Health Hospital in Robbinsdale to begin her long road to recovery.

Liesch, who was wearing her seatbelt that night according to the State Patrol, was charged with a gross misdemeanor and a misdemeanor DUI charge in connection with the crash. The court case is pending.

Deputy Sprenger summed up what most who witnessed the scene of the crash thought: "It's a miracle. She had a guardian angel that night."

'Broken from top to bottom'

Three hours north of their home in Minneapolis, Liesch's parents, Mike and Laura, were at a relative's cabin when they received the call around midnight.

"It's the call no parent ever wants to get," said Mike Liesch. "We didn't have great cell reception so it was very spotty information that we were getting but we drove three hours to get to the hospital not really knowing what we were going to find — what condition our daughter was going to be in."

Somewhere along the line, Liesch flatlined and a defibrillator had to be used to resuscitate her. Among her numerous injuries were eight broken ribs, two broken hands and ulnas, and a broken pelvis, sacrum, right femur, right tibia, and right foot.

Upon seeing his daughter through the glass for the first time since the accident, Mike Liesch felt relief.

"I was so thankful just to see she was awake and looking at me through the glass. [She was] broken from top to bottom, but there wasn't a scratch on her face somehow."

Liesch had seven surgeries in 10 days. Her eighth surgery was a bone graft. Liesch has another surgery scheduled to get some of the hardware out of her tibia.

She spent seven weeks in the hospital, including two in a transitional care unit.

"I was there for two weeks and occupational therapy and physical therapy were in there too," said Liesch. "It's more like getting you ready to go to wherever you're going next, so it was a lot of therapy and a lot of relearning how to do the day-to-day basic things."

Just prior to Thanksgiving, members of the St. James Fire Department took the two-hour drive to visit Liesch and surprise her.

"It meant the world to me," said Liesch. "I can't express it in words. They surprised me, so I didn't know they were coming which made it even more special because they just caught me off guard... you don't have time to think about how to thank the people that were there that night that saved your life. It was really incredible to put faces to names."

Liesch currently goes to therapy two times a week for 80-minute sessions.

"Therapy has been intense, but good. I'm re-learning how to walk correctly and it's been really fun, to be honest — but it's good to try and get back to where I was."

Last Tuesday night at the St. James Fire Hall, Liesch and her family got her chance to say thank you to the first responders who helped save her life. 

"You helped keep our family intact," said Mike Liesch to the large number of first responders that had gathered at the fire hall.

"They just feel like almost superheroes to me," said Brooklyn. "I felt on the way here tonight that I was meeting heroes. Hopefully, it encourages them to keep their training up and keep up the good work because it really does make such an impact." 

The Liesches exchanged "hellos" and "thank yous" with the first responders, and treated them to a dinner.

Brooklyn also gained inspiration from those who helped save her life last fall and hopes to volunteer at hospitals.

The Liesch's were given also given a tour of the fire hall and see the equipment that firefighters use on a daily basis.

"It kind of puts things into perspective to say 'I love you' to friends and family as much as you can," says Brooklyn.