Chuck Meier wasn’t thinking about his own missing right leg the night he tore off his belt to use as a tourniquet for a motorcycle rider who had just wiped out on Boca Chica Road, a few miles outside Key West, in a crash that severed his right leg.
Knee-deep in the muck of a five-foot-deep roadside ditch about 10:30 p.m. April 17, Meier had one thing on his mind: Making sure this guy made it out of the mangroves alive.
“I’ve been in this situation before,” Meier said. “You don’t have a lot of time.”
The bleeding, severely injured man’s screams were a good sign, said Meier, a red-haired, bearded 6-foot-4-inch, nearly 300-pound force of nature who served in Iraq, formerly worked as a sheriff’s deputy in Monroe County and a crash and rescue fireman.
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“He sees me holding what’s left of his stump and he’s screaming,” Meier said. “I tell him, that means you’re alive. Keep screaming at me. Once you lose consciousness, everything releases and you bleed out.”
The Florida Highway Patrol was on the scene by 11:42 p.m. and the motorcyclist, Phil Zielinski, 37, of Key West, was airlifted to the Ryder Trauma Center in Miami.
But months later, as Meier has returned to his life of being a cop trainer, boat captain, author, motivational speaker and all-purpose gun instructor, he has time to appreciate the parallels of the hero and the survivor.
“What are the odds of a one-legged man saving a one-legged man?” Meier mused.
Zielinski, who lost his right leg starting above the knee, said he can’t recall the crash, or Meier applying the belt tourniquet and keeping him conscious by rubbing his sternum and telling him he would make it out alive.
“I remember hearing the water, I thought it was a dream,” said Zielinski, a New Jersey native and one-time motocross racer who moved to Key West two years ago with plans to scuba dive.
That night he had been heading west on Boca Chica Road to U.S. 1 on his way home after dining with pals at the Geiger Key Marina. Zielinski went into a left curve too fast, according to the FHP, lost control of his black 2003 Honda CBR600 RR due to the speed and was hurled through a metal state road sign -- which sliced off his right leg -- and trees before landing in the water.
He said he’s recovering well with the support of friends and was recently approved for Medicaid as he doesn’t have health insurance. He’s waiting to be healed up enough to be fitted for a prosthetic, and plans to return to his dive-shop job and complete his dive master certification.
He knows how lucky he is.
Meier and his wife were driving to their home on Geiger Key that night when they spotted a neighbor in the road waving his cell phone as a flashlight. They pulled the truck over and learned a motorcyclist had crashed into the mangroves. The neighbor was riding his bike home when he heard someone in the mangroves calling out.
“No one would have known,” said Dallis Meier, who searched for Phil’s severed leg, which she found on the pavement, while Chuck worked to keep Phil alive.
Zielinski says he relates to Meier in more ways than the lost limb. They both speak their mind, he said, and share a wicked sense of humor.
Moments after coming to at the Miami hospital where he was airlifted after the crash, Zielinski said he looked at his leg and told those present, “Ooops.”
“Then I asked, ‘How is my bike?’ ” Zielinski said the other day.
Meier said he knows Zielinski will make it as an amputee. On Sunday afternoon, Meier showed a visitor his collection of prosthetic legs inside his office, where the walls are filled with his many certifications -- he’s a pilot, scuba diver, hypnotist and minister -- copies of his two books -- including the Iraq memoir “Letters from the Sand Box.”
Meier served during the Iraq War but was a defense contractor working on a team that confiscated and destroyed enemy ammunition and weapons when he lost his leg in a truck explosion in Tikrit. The experience helped him devise a positive mindset he uses to help others.
“You still feel it,” Meier said of a missing limb. “It freaked me the hell out. People look at you different. That never bothered me.”
Gwen Filosa: @KeyWestGwen