90-year-old hikes to save wife's life

Posted: Thursday, August 23, 2001

FAIRBANKS - Bob Buzby hiked for three hours, wading glacier-fed creeks several times in high-top leather slippers, to find help for his injured wife who fell off a four-wheeler Sunday.

Not bad for a 90-year-old who had a hip replacement in 1992.

Buzby's survival skills, learned from a lifetime of hunting, trapping and guiding in Alaska's wilds - coupled with luck, a Good Samaritan with a satellite phone and a military medical airlift - played a part in the successful rescue of his 85-year-old wife.

The accident occurred in the Dry Creek drainage in the foothills of the Alaska Range, 80 miles southeast of Fairbanks.

"She's lucky to be here," Buzby said as he visited his wife of 68 years, Mildred "Tiny" Buzby, Tuesday afternoon in her room at Fairbanks Memorial Hospital. "I feel pretty fortunate that she's here now."

Mildred Buzby suffered a concussion, broken shoulder blade and compound fractures of her lower left leg as well as multiple bruises and abrasions. She has been scheduled for surgery.

Ruddy-cheeked and smiling, she lay quietly in bed hooked up to an IV while trading good-natured jibes with her husband about the accident.

"I think she's just getting old," he quipped.

Mildred Buzby quickly retorted with, "You have to be if you live with a 90-year-old man."

Sunday afternoon the couple's blueberry-picking excursion was first interrupted when Mildred Buzby tipped her four-wheeler by the side of the road. Her husband soon righted it with his D-4 Caterpillar, and Mildred Buzby continued on the steep road looking for her berry bucket, which had rolled down the hill.

What happened next is a matter of conjecture. Mildred Buzby doesn't remember the accident. Her husband, following in the Cat, didn't see it happen. As he came over a crest he spotted her lying in the road.

Bob Buzby's first reaction was to try to maneuver his wife onto the blade of the Cat and get her back to the shelter of their summer cabin half a mile away. But when he tried to move the Cat it stalled. It was out of fuel.

He hiked back down the hill and up to the cabin, picked up his rifle to signal with and started down a trail to their nearest neighbor, Stan Niemic, on the other side of Dry Creek.

Using a cane and walking stick, Buzby forded swift-moving Slide Creek several times. The 3-mile hike took him three hours.

Niemic wasn't home, but guide Eric Umphenour was sitting outside Niemic's cabin waiting for some hunters to arrive.

In an interview, Umphenour said he had heard three rifle shots earlier in the evening, but thought nothing of it.

"There are a lot of bears around here and I figured someone was shooting a bear," he said.

It was almost dark when Umphenour heard Buzby's cries for help.

Umphenour forded the deeper Dry Creek on a four-wheeler, went back across and grabbed a sleeping bag and larger four-wheeler and took Buzby back to his camp. Umphenour also called his wife on a satellite phone and told her to notify the Alaska State Troopers.

Back at the Buzbys' camp, they found Mildred Buzby sitting up waiting for her rescuers.

"She was shivering pretty bad and we wrapped her in two sleeping bags," Umphenour said.

In less than 90 minutes from the first call to troopers, the Army medical evacuation helicopter set down at the camp.

When the helicopter landed, Umphenour drove rescue equipment and one of the two military personnel to where Mildred Buzby was waiting. After administering first aid, the three men carried her back to the helicopter in a litter.

The Buzbys are taking the abrupt end of their summer activities in stride.

But Mildred Buzby dismisses the idea of taking it easy.

"I love the out of doors and I like to walk. I'm a mall walker in the winter and go three miles a day," she said. "Right now, I'm a little incapacitated."

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