MARINE CORPS AIR STATION YUMA, Ariz. -- An adrenaline-charged jaunt Sept. 7 through the dirt trails of Yuma County soon became a situation that required four station Marines to put their life-saving skills into practice.
The four dirt-bike enthusiasts rescued another biker after he crashed into a construction fence and suffered multiple injuries. The biker was riding by himself, and said he was certain that he would have perished without the aid of the four young Marines.
"There's no doubt in my mind that I would have died," said Maj. Matt Catron, chief administrator of the Yuma Sheriff's Office and the dirt bike enthusiast who was saved by the Marines.
Riding alone was the one mistake made by Catron, who has 36 years of experience riding dirt bikes, when he was practicing for upcoming races in the desert east of Yuma between County Roads 9E and 10E. The former semi-professional racer was wearing all of his safety gear when the accident happened, including full boots, gloves, racing pants and jersey and full-face helmet.
"I was on a lower-level dirt road that had recently been graded even lower by construction," Catron said. "I was going 85-90 miles per hour, and I just couldn't see the fence until it was too late."
That's where the Marines came in. Catron had been trying to catch up to the Marines, who he had seen racing up ahead of him, in order to be riding near others. Fortunately for Catron, after he had crashed, the Marines who had not witnessed the wreck had turned around to try the path Catron was aiming for.
"I was riding and I saw (Catron's) dirt bike upside down and I thought 'What in the world?'" said Sgt. Jacob M. Brown, a plane captain with Marine Attack Squadron-211. "His helmet was halfway on and I could hear shallow breathing, but I could tell he was in bad shape."
So bad was Catron's condition that the other Marines feared the worst when they approached.
"When I got there I thought 'Oh my God, he's not moving,'" said Sgt. Jeremy D. Olson, a plane captain with Marine Attack Squadron-513.
"It looked like his knee had flopped over in a direction it had no reason turning," added Cpl. M. Patrick Kavanaugh, ordnanceman with VMA-513, illustrating the graphic sight of the accident. "He hit the fence with some authority. The crash left a nice impression of his front wheel, then a dent where he, the bike, or both hit the fence."
After about two minutes, the Marines were able to revive Catron. He was in a state of shock brought on by his extensive injuries, which included collapsed lungs, four broken ribs, multiple fractures in his right hand and a femur (thigh bone) that was broken in 15 places.
"We told him not to move his leg, but he was still in shock and he moved it anyway," Brown said.
"And then there was a horrible crunching noise," Olson added, explaining how some of the fractures got there.
The Marines including Cpl. Michael O. Galaz, a plane captain with VMA-211, who was the only rider on a quad stayed with Catron and kept him awake while keeping him still. They found Catron's cell phone and dialed 911, and then Olson and Galaz rode out in opposite directions to major thoroughfares to help lead emergency rescue workers to Catron.
In the meantime Brown and Kavanaugh gave Catron water from their Camelbaks and kept Catron conscious. Catron was "relatively coherent," according to Brown, when the paramedics arrived 35 minutes later.
Catron was taken to Yuma Regional Medical Center where he was treated for his injuries. Looking back on the scene, the Marines were a bit surprised they handled themselves so well.
"At the time while we were there we were real calm," said Kavanaugh. "But it seems a lot worse now when we look at it."
"We did the important things when it came to taking care of him," Olson said. The four Marines ride together as often as possible, they said, and some of them have had serious injuries before, so they had an idea of how to handle the situation.
"I just want to thank them for being the professionals that they were," Catron said. "Because of them my wife and three children still have a husband and father. Semper Fi."
The four Marines didn't set out that day to be heroes, but with their quick thinking and care for a fellow rider, they earned that title.
"It feels great to have been able to help him," Galaz said. "It's nice to know all of us remained calm and were there for him."
Even though they witnessed fear-inspiring wreckage, the Marine dirt devils won't be giving up their racing helmets any time soon.
"It's a great way to get out and relax," Olson said. "The only other way to be more free is to fly with wings."
Apparently that emotion is one that dirt-bikers have in common, because the pains caused by this crash haven't stemmed Catron's desire to ride, either.
"It's inherently dangerous, that's part of the reason we do it," Catron said. "It's going to be a long recovery, and I don't know if I'll ever race again, but oh, yeah, I will ride again."