by Peter Jakey–Managing Editor
Before July 31 the only connection Eric Pilarski, 53, and Gerald “Jerry” LaLonde, 58, had was a mutual appreciation of the Huron Sunrise Trail.
Both Rogers City men spent a lot of time on the trail walking and riding a bike, and knew each other, but only in passing.
That all changed when LaLonde took a life-threatening spill on the metal bridge over Trout River that put him in a Saginaw hospital for more than a week with massive facial injuries.
At that critical moment, the relationship between Eric and Jerry changed forever and a new bond was formed.
Eric was not only in the right place at the right time, but his heroic actions more than likely saved a life. Both believe God put Eric there at that moment.
Pilarski was sitting on a bench near the bridge and witnessed the accident as it happened. The bike tire slid out from under Jerry and sent him face first into the railing. He had rode his bike from north of town that morning to Little League Park and was heading back.
“It happened so fast, I didn’t have time to put my hands out,” said Jerry in an interview this week at his home north of Rogers City.
Eric didn’t know how serious the accident was, but it didn’t take long to figure out something was not right because the retired sailor was not moving. He tied up his beagle to the bench and rushed over.
When Eric got to him, Jerry was moaning in pain and losing blood at a rapid pace. The impact of the collision had peeled off part of Jerry’s face. “His eye was moving down toward his ear and I could see his skull,” said Eric.
His first thought was, “what do I do?” With no first aid kit or cell phone his second thought was to put the skin to where it was supposed to be, remove the University of Michigan T-shirt he had been wearing and tie it tightly around Jerry’s head. He then took Jerry’s bike and rode for help. The closest place was the city garage. He ran in and told them to dial 9-1-1 to get an ambulance.
In the meantime, Jerry pulled himself up and made his way over to the square picnic table at the park.
“Something told me to get up and go sit at that table,” said Jerry. “I got up and held myself along the railing and I sat at that table. I think that’s what slowed the bleeding because my head was elevated and I was able to keep my hand on it better.”
That’s where Eric found him when he returned on the bike.
“I tried to get him talking, when he said ‘my hands were getting numb,’ ” said Eric, sipping a cup of coffee at Jerry’s Clay Banks Highway home this week.
Allied Ambulance arrived, along with emergency personnel.
Jerry was transported to St. Mary Hospital of Saginaw, a facility that specializes in traumatic head injuries. His first six days were in the intensive care unit. It took four days for the swelling to go down before doctors performed the first surgery to reconstruct his face. He didn’t lose his left eye, but he gets double vision when he opens it. He still cannot drive and has not been on the bike since that day and admits the recovery will still be many trips to the doctors ahead.
Jerry believes something needs to be done to improve the bridge because he says it really gets slick when it gets wet. It may have been slippery that morning because of a rain the night before, or morning dew that had not evaporated from the deck.
Jerry has been to City Hall to discuss with city manager Mark Slown possible safety improvements that can be made.
When contacted, Slown said some steps already have been taken and the city has been evaluating the safety of the bridge to see if further steps need to be made. A lost control consultant also has looked at the 10-year-old bridge.
Slown also passed along his sympathies to Jerry and hopes for a swift recovery.
“I would hate to see something like this happen to somebody else,” said Jerry. “They have to put some kind of nonskid material on it. They also have to soften the rails some way. Maybe they can put some padding on.”
“All three of the bridges in that area, when they are wet, they are slippery,” said Jerry’s wife Carolyn LaLonde, who walks the trail with her friend quite often.
Jerry is extremely grateful that Eric came to his aid. Maybe it was not textbook, but he used what he had available during an intense emergency situation. Eric gave the shirt off his back and walked home to his U.S.-23 home forever changed.
Jerry and Carolyn hope to replace the shirt someday soon in the future.
“If Eric would not have been there I would have died there right on the bridge, because nobody came along,” said Jerry.