Tom Ham, 59, heard a sickening belch one day last month as his dump truck descended a steep gravel road near a rock quarry in Tiftonia. An experienced driver, Ham knew it was the sound of his air brakes surrendering to a 20-ton load of jetty stone.
Immediately, he could feel his 1987 Freightliner tandem-axle truck picking up speed, and he knew he only had seconds before the rig would plunge 200 feet down a ravine.
"All I could think of was my five grandbabies," Ham said.
He had two choices: Ride the truck down to almost certain death, or roll the dice and jump.
Ham is a gambler. Before the economy turned bad, he would sometimes visit the casinos in Cherokee, N.C. He won $32,000 after taxes once playing Pick 5 in the lottery.
Ham fired up the CB radio and shouted to the driver of a loader-truck trailing him down the mountain: "I'm gonna jump!"
With his truck traveling about 45 mph, Ham leaped from the cab hoping to land clear of the crash. Instead, he hit a boulder and bounced underneath the truck. He was conscious as the Freightliner rolled over his legs.
The truck driver trailing him down the mountain rushed to his side and pressed a roll of paper towels to his mangled legs to stem the bleeding. As they waited for an ambulance to arrive, Ham remembers wishing for a drink of water, and a gentle rain began to fall.
Ham was in the hospital for 17 days drifting in and out of consciousness. He had four surgeries and 11 blood transfusions. Doctors removed both of his legs just above the knee.
It was an anguishing time for his wife of 41 years, Barbara Ham.
"I was a mess," she recalls. "I didn't know how he was going to react when he woke up without his legs.
"When he did wake up, I told him that I loved him. He was worried about what I would think and what the grandbabies would think about his legs. I said we still had him, and that's all that mattered."
Ham's doctors gather in the hall outside his hospital room on the day he was released to go home. They all agreed his recovery had been nearly miraculous.
When we talked, Ham was sitting on a bed in the basement of his gray, split-level home on a hillside in Apison. His eyes rarely left his legs, which are healing but still swollen.
He'll turn 60 years old this weekend, and he has asked for a birthday party. His trucker buddies will be invited. There will be a cake decorated like a casino.
Instead of being depressed, Ham says he feels lucky to be alive.
There are worries, of course: the mortgage, trying to collect Social Security disability, reaching a settlement for the twisted remains of his dump truck.
Yet, he says he spends most of his time outside in his wheelchair praying.
He thinks ahead to next year. Maybe he will have artificial legs by then. He has promised his grandchildren he will walk again. He daydreams about taking them fishing.
"Sometimes I'm up at 4 a.m. sitting on the patio and drinking my coffee," he says. "Mostly I just think about getting well."
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