Editor’s Note: This story was originally published in the Banner-Press May 3, 2011.
By Matt Keyser / Sports Reporter
A YOUNG MAN WALKED on a baseball field last week, his tall, wiry build covered in his team’s red uniform and white pants. A faded chest protector guards a 12-inch incision on his chest, and shin guards protect a knee that just weeks prior was in pieces. As he squats behind home plate for warm-up drills – firing the ball to second base, racing to nab a bunt on the infield grass – he looks in his niche, as if there’s no other place he’d rather be.
By most accounts, he shouldn’t be on the field.
His mother, sitting with anticipation behind the chain-linked fence that separates the field from the stands, is apprehensive of his return. Some will tell you that the kid making catches with each pop of the glove shouldn’t be alive; that he is nothing short of a walking, talking miracle.
THE BLACK CHEVROLET S10 sped west down the narrow two-lane road that makes up FM 389 just after 11 a.m. on Feb. 12, a Saturday. Christopher Langley, 18, was in a bit of a hurry, as one might be trying to squeeze the most out of the weekend.
As the balmy sun ascended to its peak, Chris punched his accelerator to a steady 65 as the country road tightened – the asphalt hugging the rolling hills, through the cow pastures and acres of farm land. It was a road he traveled often back to his home in a tiny Burton neighborhood. Along the way, Chris’ attention diverted from the road to the inside of his cab – it could have been the radio, or the heater, maybe even a text message to his girlfriend, whom he planned to spend his day with after a quick shower at home. Looking back today, he’s unsure what distracted him.
As the black Chevy barreled down the road, a truck in front of him braked to turn left on Tigerpoint Road – a skinny stretch that requires a slow left turn or the threat of ending up in an overgrown field or fish-tailing into a grove of trees. As Chris topped the hill just before reaching Tigerpoint, he failed to see the vehicle that reached its stop – or the white Suburban that made its way east.
AMY KLUSSMANN SPENT THE LATE morning stocking the compartment of an ambulance to prepare for the day’s shift. It was a typical routine, as the rest of the Washington County EMS paramedics washed and polished the emergency fleet. Amy is a veteran when it comes emergency response, having spent the last 15 years with the Washington County crew.
At 11:23, as Amy continued prepping for the day, the emergency alarm echoed off the station’s walls.
The paramedics dashed as dispatch relayed information of the emergency – a head-on collision at 389 and Tigerpoint Road, no patient information at the time.
There’s a term medical personnel use called the golden hour – from the moment an accident occurs to the time the patient is taken into surgery. In the more extreme cases, getting the victim from Point A to Point B in that time frame can be the difference between life and death. That’s why on that day, an emergency helicopter was dispatched, two ambulances and an EMS squad vehicle, and the Brenham Fire Department was called to bring a hydraulic rescue tool more commonly known as the Jaws of Life.
En route to the accident, Amy and the other emergency personnel mapped out a plan of care. Still not a lot was known of the patients, but responders were told to plan for the worst.
JAY ALEXANDER AND HIS SON Jess left their home that day to spend some father-son time on the links at Brenham Country Club. Jess was in town from college for the weekend and Jay knew that time with his son was precious these days. The two topped one of the rolling hills of FM 389 just as Chris swerved to miss the stopped truck and collided with the white Suburban head-on.
The two cars met with an impact of 109 miles per hour. The force of the crash caused the rear of the black Chevy to lift off the ground, the contents in the bed flying everywhere.
“Oh my God. What is that?” Jay said as he pulled over to the side of the road.
Fluids from each vehicle leaked and flooded the pavement. Smoke billowed from each truck and any spark, the smallest flame could engulf the two vehicles.
Jay made his way to the white Suburban, driven by Roy White, an elderly man who had no time to respond when Chris swerved to miss the other vehicle. Inside the Suburban, a cloud of dust filled the air when the air bags deployed.
Roy White was shaken up, feeling a slight pain in his chest, but from what Jay could tell seemed to be cognizant and had suffered no obvious injuries. White would later be transferred to Scott & White-Brenham where he was released that day.
Jay then made his way to the black Chevy. Inside, Chris Langley was lying on his back, his torso facing the passenger seat and blood streaming from his ear. The windows of the mangled truck had shattered at impact, the dashboard rested 10 feet away and the steering column was missing its wheel. Like White, Chris took a crushing blow at impact. His knee shattered as it hit the dash, his jaw fractured, and the switch for his turn signal pushed through his cheek and up his face, missing his right eye by millimeters. And unknown to anyone at the time, there was internal damage.
As Chris slowly came out of his daze, he tried to move. Knowing how potentially harmful that could be, Jay tried to gently restrain Chris to prevent further injuries.
IN THEIR SMALL Burton neighborhood, Melissa Mock and her husband Greg sat nestled in their home as the TV aired Pure Country 2. Melissa was feeling a little under since the night before – something just wasn’t right, almost as if her motherly instincts warned her of the danger to come.
Chris had phoned minutes before to say he was on his way home, but would be home long enough to clean up and race out to visit his new girlfriend 30 miles away in Giddings.
“It was typical Chris,” she said.
But as the minutes passed and Chris had yet to arrive, she worried.
THE BRENHAM FIRE DEPARTMENT and the Jaws of Life cut the smashed door to free Chris. Once out, paramedics eased him to a gurney and wheeled him to the ambulance. Still dazed and disoriented, Chris fought the emergency personnel to get free. It took five people to hold him down. It was a tricky task – use too much force and there’s risk to worsen his injuries, too soft and he’d break free.
Inside the ambulance, Chris pulled at the tubes and lines, twice removing the IV paramedics had inserted. To calm him, he was intibated with a breathing tube and injected with a paralytic that would paralyze his body and prevent him from struggling – an option only used in the most severe cases.
It was just one of the decisions that helped save his life.
MORE THAN 30 MINUTES HAD PASSED since Chris phoned his mom. Usually the drive is no more than 20 minutes, but the popping of the gravel road on the truck’s tires had yet to sound.
The house phone rang just before noon, and anxious to know where her son was, Melissa Mock answered.
Officer Trey Gulley of the Brenham Police Department voiced the other line. In his calm, collected voice, he quickly got to the point. Ma’am, do you have a son named Chris? he asked. What’s his full name? What kind of truck does he drive? Each answer brought another, more terrifying, question. And then the worst of all…
He’s in the back of an ambulance; a helicopter is on its way.
Melissa had spent nearly five years as a nurse – including a stint at Scott & White-Brenham. Through the years she’s seen her fair share of accident victims, but nothing could prepare her for the words that it was her son, the oldest of three, the one set to be one of 29 Burton High School graduates in May, who lay sedated in the back of an ambulance with emergency personnel uncertain if he would pull through.
The tears didn’t come immediately. A mass hysteria with her body falling to shock came over Melissa. She threw the phone at her husband and ran out the door to her mother’s house, two homes away. Inside, Linda Runyon heard the cries from her porch, God, don’t take my son!
“At first I thought it was a child,” she said.
Linda, Chris’ closest grandparent, the one who helped Melissa raise him as if he were her own son for four years, grabbed her keys, helped Melissa to her car and headed for the scene of the crash.
THE EMERGENCY HELICOPTER TOOK FLIGHT just as Melissa and Linda arrived. The line of traffic stretched for miles each direction as cars were forced to turn around. Emergency personnel relayed information that Chris was being flown to Scott and White-Temple, 96 miles from the crash.
Linda fired her white Suburban up Highway 36 to Temple, pushing speeds close to 100 mph.
When Chris arrived at the hospital, he was given an emergency CT scan. The results showed air in his stomach – a sign that something was wrong. He was rushed to emergency surgery.
Once Melissa and Linda arrived, the two were taken to a family room to wait for Chris to come out of surgery. Not even five minutes after sitting down, a doctor and the hospital’s chaplain walked into the room.
This does not look good, Linda remembers thinking.
Each told the family that Chris might not pull through and they should start preparing for the worst.
AS THE HOURS PASSED, word spread through Burton. Melissa reached Karen Steenken, principal of Burton High School, who was attending a pig show in San Antonio and helped relay the news. She spread word to baseball coach Robbie Yanowski, basketball coach Jamie Smith and football coach and athletic director Clinton Smith. Before long, a convoy of Burton faithful headed north as prayers spread throughout the community.
Inside surgery, doctors worked to repair Chris’ perforated colon. Bags of saline solution, a cleaning agent, were used to wash out his insides before a colostomy bag was attached to the outer part of his abdomen.
Four more hours were spent repairing Chris’ knee and the bones that splintered at impact. Doctors pieced together the bone fragments with plates and screws to hold everything in place. While physically Chris was expected to make a full recovery, it was still unknown of any brain injuries, and results from the CT scan might not show swelling until 48 hours later.
The breathing tube was removed Sunday, the day after Chris arrived at the hospital. His ability to speak and remember his family members, his girlfriend or who he is would be tell-tale signs if he had avoided any brain injuries.
As Chris lay in bed with Melissa by his side, he opened his eyes.
“What happened?” he asked in a groggy voice.
Melissa filled him in on the crash, the surgeries and he was in the hospital.
“Can I still play baseball?” he asked.
There. Those words. The sign that Chris’ brain was still functioning and wasn’t damaged during impact. Tears trickled down Melissa’s face, but not tears of sadness, but of joy. She had her son back.
THE FOLLOWING DAYS in the hospital, Chris underwent another surgery to repair his fractured jaw and close the hole in his cheek punctured by the turn signal. As the medication flowed heavily through his body he spent most of his time asleep. Some nights he dreamt – sometimes surrounded by white clouds that filled the sky and a bright white light. The pathway to heaven, his mom said. Chris agrees. During a visit, he met his grandfather who passed away four years prior. The two spoke. Of what, Chris can’t remember. For how long? Who knows. Each time, he returned to his hospital bed, feeling as though the white clouds and the light had told him, Chris, it just isn’t your time.
Through the week, nurses, residents and doctors all flooded Chris’ room making sure he was healing properly. But while Chris’ body was making a nice recovery, his demeanor began to change. The hospital food was terrible, so he didn’t eat; doctors told him that he wouldn’t play baseball his final year of high school, the most painful incident of all. Soon even the visits from the Burton coaches, students and staff; the presence of his mom, girlfriend and grandmother and the prayers, and get-well cards weren’t enough to keep Chris in good spirits.
Linda Runyon saw the depression in Chris’ eyes. She knew it was time for her grandbaby to go home.
CHRISTOPHER LANGLEY RETURNED to Burton on Feb. 18, six days after the wreck. From the moment he stepped foot in the door and as visitors flooded his home, it was as if his healing process expedited. Before long, he was out of his splint and building strength and muscle in his knee with an exercise bike and leg lifts. In the ensuing doctors’ visits, he was told that if his knee kept healing the rate it was, he might be cleared to play one or two innings of a baseball game. He wasted no time setting up a tire in his backyard to improve his throwing accuracy.
Chris made his return to the field on April 12, exactly two months to the day after the accident, when the Burton Panthers faced district opponent the Snook Blue Jays. It was the Panthers’ 15th game of the season, with the team holding a 6-8 record. Chris didn’t start, but once Burton exploded to a 15-5 lead, first baseman Colten Anders approached head coach Robbie Yanowski, offering his spot to the senior sitting in the dugout. Yanowski left the decision to the players, all of whom unanimously agreed to let Chris return to the field.
“I felt like doing a backflip,” Chris said.
He recorded two put outs, the second when catcher Colton Mahanna dropped a third strike and fired the ball down to Chris for the out. Three days later against Round Top-Carmine at home, Chris took the pitching mound in the fifth inning with Burton up 12-3. He plunked his first batter – a little shaky because of nerves – but struck out one for the final out of the inning. Burton fans in the stands cheered. The players on the field clapped, hooped and hollered as Chris jogged back to the dugout.
But while Chris made his return to the field, he had yet to return to his favorite position, where he had played the previous two seasons, for Burton as the man behind the plate.
On April 25, nearly 10 weeks after the wreck, Chris stepped on to the Burton baseball field covered in his catcher’s gear for the Panthers’ final game of the regular season. Not only was he catching, he was starting. He slid and jumped with ease – moving as if the knee injury never occurred.
“He did better than I expected,” Yanowski said after the game.
Now Chris and the Panthers head into a match-up against the Ganado Indians in the bi-district round of Class 1A playoffs. Because of his speedy recovery and performance behind the plate against Somerville, he’ll start in that opening playoff game as catcher.
MANY WILL ASK, How is it possible this young man survived such a catastrophic crash that could have – should have – left him either paralyzed, comatose or dead? How is it he made such a miraculous recovery?
One has to simply look on the wall of the Panthers’ dugout for the answer. There, the white lettering amongst the red background reads, Tough times don’t last, tough people do.