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Utah man once close to death loves his fairy tale life

Published November 3, 2012 11:37 am

Near-death experience doesn't keep a young man from living, loving.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Rich McKenzie, 19, woke up on a beautiful morning in the vast desert wilderness near Utah's San Rafael Swell.

His brother and best friends were swimming shoulder deep in a river, near the bank where the group was camping. The teens were celebrating their recent high school graduation and the possibilities ahead.

Rich snapped their photo. Then he waded into the murky water and stretched his arms to the sky. His brother whispered to himself, "Rich, don't dive."

It was too late. He dove in, struck a sandbar hidden just 6 inches below the river's surface — and his life changed.

Instead of making plans to finish college, become a dentist and start a family, he lay paralyzed in a hospital bed for months, learning to function with the few muscles he could move.

In his darkest hours he wondered: Could the future be as full as what he'd envisioned? What would it be like to watch from the sidelines as his friends achieved their goals?

Fourteen years after the 1998 dive, he no longer thinks about what might have been. He instead thinks about what he has — friends that have become brothers, irrevocably bonded by one July day.

'It was terrifying' • A swimmer trained at Fremont High School, Rich dove fast and he dove hard. His arms hit first, dislocating his shoulders. Then his head hit, shattering a bone vertebrae high in his neck.

He was face down in the water. He remembers seeing his arms floating in front of him and trying to push up. But his limbs did not respond.

Within 30 seconds, his friends were there. And after that, Rich said, "They've been my hands ever since."

Rich's brother, Dave Mc­Kenzie, and his friends, Chris Hanson, Pete Norseth, Steve Kippen, carefully turned Rich over with a squeeze grip they'd learned in lifeguard training. Hanson held Rich's neck as the others carried him through the slippery water and rocks back to shore.

The four 18-year-olds knew a little about spinal cord injuries, and they could tell that Rich was in bad shape.

The five had hiked about eight miles into the wilderness the day before. There was no way that Rich was walking out. There was no way they were carrying him out.

Surprised to get a signal with the cellphone their parents had insisted they take, they called for help. A search-and-rescue team and a medical helicopter headed their way.

They waited.

For six hours, Rich lay under the tarp his friends used to shield him from the blistering hot sun. They gave him the little water they had and attempted to filter more. They tried to keep him cool.

Rich said he felt intense pain in his neck and shoulders, but when Hanson would squeeze his toes, he felt nothing. His friends were afraid that if he lost consciousness he wouldn't regain it, so his brother stayed by his side, asking constant questions.

Rich tried to play the game, too, telling his brother random stories that popped into his head.

"It's weird the things that go through your mind. Fairy tales, really?" he said.

He started to think he could die. But, he adds, "I knew that my friends were there. They weren't going to let it happen."

And he offered up a deal: "If I get out of here, no matter what shape I'm in, it's going to be OK, and I'll just make the best out of that life."

When a helicopter finally landed in the difficult terrain, rescuers could only take Rich — forcing a "horrible separation moment for all of us," he said.

As Rich was flown to LDS Hospital in Salt Lake City for emergency surgery to remove bone shards from his neck, his brother and friends hiked for hours back out of the canyon with little food and water.

They then had to endure the long drive back home, not knowing Rich's fate.

"It was terrifying. It was just life changing," Kippen said. "...That was the beginning of a new life for all of us."

'Dealing with what you're given' • The rescue, Rich said, was a "miracle. Total miracle ... I felt like there was a purpose that I made it out of there, [although I] wasn't really sure what that was."

Once it was clear that Rich would survive, his family and friends had to adjust to life with a new and different person.

Growing up, Rich and Dave McKenzie were always on the move — they went rock climbing, swam and ran track. With his brother's paralysis, "I felt like I had lost a part of me," said Dave McKenzie.

Volleyball brought the five friends together when they were just 14. The group quietly wondered how they would all move ahead.

Rich had to learn how to feed himself. He had to learn how to get around in a wheelchair, how to drive again. He also had to find a new direction. Before the accident, he wanted to be a dentist.

There were days at a time that Rich was depressed, he said. Then he'd remember the bargaining he did while he waited for the helicopter.

"We just kind of made this pact with my dad and my mom, my friends and my brothers: I could have one down day a week. I didn't have to get out of bed if I didn't want to ... I could just sit there and be sad," Rich said. After that one day was up, it was back to work.

And work he did.

He earned a bachelor's degree in English, followed by another bachelor's degree in communication speech disorders. He's now in the master's program for speech language pathology at Utah State University while he works as a speech language technician at Horace Mann Elementary in Ogden.

His friends started families and pursued careers. His brother became a podiatrist, Hanson a firefighter, Kippen a pilot, and Norseth a lawyer. They've been inspired and amazed by Rich's accomplishments.

"He can't use his fingers, but he has a bachelor's in English...The determination it took for him to accomplish that is incredible," said Hanson.

"I think he was the strongest of the bunch of us," Kippen added. "He taught us all something about dealing with what you're given and making the most of it."

'A dream come true' • The last missing piece, his friends felt, was finding someone to share Rich's life.

Their prayers were answered by Utahn Amy Terry, who was teaching in Alaska when she met Rich on an online dating site.

The two traded emails about their LDS faith, love of family and oddly shared affection for the offbeat movie "Friday."

Once Amy returned to Utah, they went on a first date. She had to ride in the back of Rich's van, which has no room for a passenger seat in the front.

He also had to be home by 9 p.m. because that's when health aides arrive to help him prepare for bed.

Both 32, they share a love for working with young children.

In July, he literally popped the question — tying a ring to a doorway that sprung from the last page of a pop-up book. "I just love him," Amy said. "He's awesome."

Last month, the four friends who saved Rich's life stood by his side as groomsmen as he married Amy.

The wedding brought the friendship full circle, Dave McKenzie said. "It was just amazing to be there to experience that. It was like literally a dream come true."

"We're ready to start a new chapter, all five of us being happy and where we want to be," Kippen agreed.

Rich feels his fairy tale is happening right now. "I never ever thought," he said, "that life could be this good."

jmccandless@sltrib.com

Twitter: @justiola —

At a glance

In July of 1998 five friends were celebrating their high school graduation together in the San Rafael Swell in southern Utah when the unimaginable happened—Rich McKenzie dived into a river and onto a hidden sandbar, becoming instantly paralyzed. His three friends and brother — Pete Norseth, Chris Hanson, Steve Kippen and Dave McKenzie —took emergency action. They carried Rich safely to shore using lifeguard training skills they'd developed and sheltered him from the sun with a makeshift tarp from their camp. Five hours away from their car and hours away from a hospital, they were able to reach life flight on an emergency cell phone their parents had made them take on the trip. They say it was a miracle that they were able to find cell service while in the middle of the desert wilderness.

Fourteen years after the crisis that changed all of their lives, Rick McKenzie was married to Amy Terry, bringing the friends together once again in a celebration of their friendship and the close bond that they share because of what happened that day many years ago.