To Brian Hunter, it was just an opportunity to lend a helping hand.
A sheepish smile crosses his face as he recalls the day he first met Gerry Vande Hey.
“I guess there wasn’t any second thoughts,” Hunter said. “It was me or nobody. There was nobody else around.”
Hunter, a troubleshooter with We Energies, speaks modestly, but his actions saved Vande Hey following a harrowing accident in the summer of 2019. That July, destructive thunderstorms and tornados barreled across northern Wisconsin, causing unprecedented damage — knocking out power to hundreds of thousands of people.
During the power restoration effort, Hunter was assigned to repair an outage along a dead-end road in Pearson, a rural town in Langlade County, Wisconsin. When Hunter arrived, he noticed Vande Hey using a tractor in a nearby field to clear a tree damaged during the storms. In an instant, the tree snapped back toward Vande Hey, coming over the loader bucket and pinning him to the back of the tractor.
“That thing had so much force, and I caught it right dead in the chest,” Vande Hey said. “I knew I was in trouble, because there was no way I could breathe.”
Hunter saw the tree slingshot backwards and quickly ran over to help Vande Hey. Struggling to breathe, he told Hunter to move the shift lever to ‘reverse.’ Hunter pulled the lever back, relieving the pressure from the tree on Vande Hey’s chest, allowing a small amount of air into his lungs.
While the weight of the tree was off of him, Vande Hey was still trapped underneath it. Seeing this, Hunter ran back to his truck and grabbed a chainsaw, which he used to remove the tree from the tractor. Vande Hey distinctly remembers the feeling of climbing off the tractor.
“That was the first I could take a full breath,” Vande Hey said. “That was the best breath of air I took, I think, in my whole life.”
Vande Hey didn’t suffer serious injuries, an outcome he credits to Hunter’s quick reaction.
“I heard from the doctors, after the CT scans and everything, that I was supposed to be dead,” Vande Hey said.
“I think it was just instinct,” Hunter said. “I knew that it was only me and him around, so that he was going to be in bad shape if I wasn’t the one to help him.”
The Midwest Energy Association, a trade organization whose members include We Energies, honored Hunter with a Life Sustaining Award in recognition of his efforts. Hunter’s actions also led him to a new friendship — and a permanent bond — with Vande Hey.
“To me, you saved my life,” Vande Hey said to Hunter.
“I’m sure you’d do the same for me,” Hunter replied back.
“I’m sure I would,” Vande Hey said.