With an oak tree pinning him to the ground, Jonathan Ceplecha came to terms with death when his shouts for help in a western Minnesota ravine went unanswered.
Yet as he ticked off each hour — 100 in all — during the four days and nights he was trapped, the 59-year-old Redwood County man couldn’t help imagining what life would be like if he was rescued.
“He was prepared for both but resolved to live,” said Emma Ceplecha, who was at her father’s bedside Friday at HCMC and had listened to him recount his ordeal.
For family and those who rescued him Monday, Ceplecha’s survival is a testament to his strength and will.
“Nine out of 10 times we get that call, that person doesn’t survive,” said Redwood County Sheriff Chief Deputy Mark Farasyn. “You have to have a different mentality to survive something like that.”
Ceplecha, whose home is tucked into the woods overlooking the Minnesota River Valley about 2½ miles east of Redwood Falls, told authorities he started cutting trees about 11 a.m. on Thursday, Aug. 27. He was working along a wooded, steep slope back about 150 yards from his home when the oak tree he was felling “bounced in a weird way,” his daughter said. “It seemed to drag him and his legs underneath it. It was a one-in-a-million kind of accident, he told us.”
His hip was wedged against the tree stump. He could move his arms and twist himself to sit up, but the force of the tree broke his left leg and crushed his right foot.
Her father lives alone, and the nearest neighbor was a mile away or more, Emma Ceplecha said. He cried out for help.
“He got weaker and weaker and his voice became less and less,” his daughter said.
He broke each day and night into hours and each hour into five-minute segments. He prayed, meditated to distract himself from panic and invented rhythms to follow from dawn to dusk. Amid the constant pain, he held imagined conversations with his two sons and daughter.
“That motivated him to live,” she said.
The Army veteran who spent time in Iraq also leaned on his military survival skills. He ate plants and insects at an arm’s reach and drank sweat and rainwater.
“He collected water in his hat and created a reservoir with his clothes. He had a sweater he could wring out and drink that way.”
At night, he covered his head to keep away swarms of mosquitoes and other insects. The layers of clothing kept him from getting too cold.
It wasn’t until the fourth night that anyone suspected something might be wrong.
Emma Ceplecha and her dad, an English teacher, discuss a book every Sunday.
“We’re reading Plato’s dialogues — a philosophy book about Socrates,” she explained. “We read a chapter every week.”
Because Emma lives in Nevada, it keeps the two in touch. “I knew he never would miss that call and at the very least he would have texted me to tell me he was busy.”
She convinced herself that maybe he just had some phone trouble. “I should have listened to my gut,” Emma Ceplecha said.
His colleagues at Marshall Area Technical and Educational Center, an alternative high school in Marshall, Minn., also thought it was odd he hadn’t participated in e-mail exchanges over the weekend, Emma Ceplecha said.
When he missed coming to work Monday, they called the Sheriff’s Office to make a welfare check. Coincidentally, his former wife, who had talked to her concerned daughter, also arrived to check on him.
They checked the house, which was open, and the yard, calling his name. One of his two trucks was gone, so sheriff deputies figured he was just out for the day.
Meanwhile, his daughter called friends and relatives for information about her father’s whereabouts and learned he had been hiking down in the valley recently. That’s where her mom found him conscious but in pain.
Farasyn was among the emergency workers who arrived on the scene after 4 p.m. Monday.
“I couldn’t even guess how much that tree weighed,” he said. Definitely thousands of pounds — “it was a big one,” Farasyn said. “It’s a tedious and meticulous rescue. One wrong cut and something catastrophically could go wrong.”
After nearly two hours of careful cuts, the firefighters rolled the trunk a bit and pulled Ceplecha free. That’s when pain overwhelmed him. “It wasn’t good,” Farasyn said.
Two surgeries later, Ceplecha is recovering, as doctors monitor an infection in his foot that could require additional surgery.
“They were able to save both legs,” his daughter said. “But he might lose part of his right foot.”
As a veteran, most of his medical costs will be covered by the Department of Veterans Affairs, but the family started a GoFundMe page to cover unforeseen expenses.
While the accident took a physical toll on her father, he gained insight during the long days and nights. “He said he had a bit of an awakening,” his daughter recounted.
“He wants to be a better person and have better relationships,” she said. “[Life-threatening experiences] seem to put things in perspective.”