50th MSG deputy shares tale of tragedy, recovery

SCHRIEVER AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- Editor’s Note: This is a part one of a two-part story. Part two will be posted to the News Service Dec. 21.

The cyclist awakes from a dream. He last remembers seeing the faces of his children. He feels no pain, but he cannot breathe. He yells at nearby paramedics, “I can’t breathe!”
Lying motionless, his thoughts go in and out. He lays trapped, his helmeted head crushed inside a car’s front right wheel well. He sees what his rescuers cannot and begins directing them how to get more than a ton of vehicle off of his body.

Lt. Col. Gary Henry’s story of tragedy and recovery begins around 7 a.m. July 24. The 50th Mission Support Group deputy commander; his wife, Maj. Kelly Phillips-Henry, of the U.S. Air Force Academy and the Academy cadet they sponsor, Tori, leave the hotel in Boulder, Colo., and set off to compete in the Boulder Peak Triathlon. It is a race the Henrys had not planned on—more of a “training opportunity they had signed up for mainly to support Tori, who had just started competing in triathlons. 

Running a little behind, they rush preparations. They set up their bicycles and the rest of their equipment, but the Henrys do not get to meet up for their traditional good-luck kiss before going to their staging areas. 

Although disappointed that he cannot wish his wife good luck, Colonel Henry stays focused on the first leg of the triathlon, the 1,500-meter swim. It is his least favorite part of the sport, but he enjoys conquering the challenge. He is among more than 100 other racers, each donning the required yellow swim cap as they run down the sandy beach to plunge into the chilly depths of the Boulder Reservoir. 

After a fairly smooth swim just shy of a mile long, Colonel Henry trudges out of the brisk, lapping water, strips off his wetsuit and runs to his bike. Colonel Henry, a strong cyclist, looks forward to the 26-mile ride ahead.

He pedals a good, steady pace—he’s not trying to win the race but pushes himself for his own satisfaction. He starts to dig in at the sixth mile as the winding Old Stage Road ascends at a 15-percent grade, becoming a 600-foot vertical climb for about two thirds of a mile—a “significant hill,” as he calls it.

He reaches the apex and descends freely. He sails down the hill, the wind cooling his skin. He’s “wheeling down,” approaching a curve to the right near the bottom, when he sees a car coming around the corner from the opposite direction. The race route has not been blocked to traffic because of the small number of participants.

He makes a split-second decision to lay his bike down, trying to avoid the inevitable collision. Then he blacks out.

By chance, a doctor is enjoying a leisurely bike ride along the same route in the opposite direction; he immediately responds to the accident. By chance, an ambulance is just hundreds of yards away responding to an accident that happened 20 minutes earlier. The paramedic team splits up to respond to both accidents, shaving precious minutes from a normal emergency response.

“I can’t breathe!” he repeatedly tells the paramedics. “I can’t breathe!”

For 40 minutes, the paramedics consider how to free him from under the car without aggravating his extensive injuries before they finally extract him.

About eight feet away, a group of bicyclists waits for the road to clear. One of those cyclists is his wife, Kelly. She does not know that her husband has been involved in the accident.

“I had the weirdest feeling,” she said, recalling the scene. “Normally I ride hard, and push myself, but all I could think about was seeing my kids and being with my family—I needed to know that everything was all right in our world.”

Colonel Henry fades in and out of consciousness as the ambulance rushes him to a Flight for Life helicopter safely perched close by amongst the foothills, pines and boulders of the Colorado Rockies.

“My prayers are with you,” Major Henry says to whom she supposes is an anonymous soul. She looks up at the helicopter, watching it fly out of sight.

She finishes the race and is beckoned to the first-aid tent. As dehydration is a common ailment, she thinks nothing of going there, probably to find her husband getting some fluids replenished.

She walks into the tent. He’s not there.

As a medic approaches her, Major Henry realizes the person on that Flight for Life is her beloved husband.