Part 1: A long, cold and scary night.
The Albany River Rats were well into their 2008-09 season and set for a three-hour bus ride across the state of Massachusetts and back home to eastern New York after playing Lowell in an American Hockey League game. These types of road trips are the norm in the minor leagues, and players pass the time differently – some on cell phones, others listening to iPods, still others catch some shut-eye after a rigorous game.
It was a typical February night in these parts – cold, brisk and snowing – as coach Jeff Daniels and his club set out for the ride home. The trip was quickly interrupted by a malfunctioning bus, which required a pull-off on the side of the road and a two-hour wait until a replacement arrived.
“The boys were playing around on the bus and having fun,” said Patrick Dwyer. “The ironic thing is we were crawling in and out of the escape holes and stuff like that, just having a good time, not knowing we would eventually have to use those.”
The new bus finally arrived at 1 a.m., the team piled on and off it went into the cold night, logging good time on the Massachusetts Turnpike at it approached the resort area known as the Berkshires, a series of mountain peaks and valleys nestled near the New York border.
Carolina assistant coach Tom Rowe, who coached 320 games in the AHL with both Lowell and Albany before arriving in Raleigh, made this same trip more than 30 times, and knows the dangers involved along this isolated portion of highway.
“That stretch is about as bad as it gets. My son scouts the AHL for San Jose and I am always telling him he better crawl through there because you can be heading down that highway going 75 mph and then the weather will change on you like that,” Rowe said, snapping his fingers.
Daniels said the first sign of trouble occurred when he felt the bus riding over rumble strips. Before he knew it, the bus was on its side and players, coaches and staff were flying through the air, some out the front window. Daniels landed on the lap of the bus driver as the terror began.
“I looked up and I saw the bus was losing control and the next thing is a blur,” Daniels said. “It was like in two seconds – it happened so quickly. The next thing we knew the bus was on its side. It was 3 o’clock in the morning, the snow was coming down and it was pitch black outside and in the bus.”
“I was sleeping and I just heard the bus driver yell for everyone to hold on,” added defenseman Brett Carson. “It was a pretty bad scene.”
The crash was horrific enough, but once the bus came to rest the danger was far from over. Half the bus was still on the highway with on-coming traffic unable to stop as players tried to make their way to safety, any way they could.
“Half the guys on the bus were sleeping, so after the crash guys were getting off the bus without shoes, other guys didn’t have jackets, it was chaos,” Daniels said. “Everybody was just trying to get off the bus because we didn’t want to get hit. It was so dark and you couldn’t see anything.
“It’s amazing we didn’t get hit after the fact because two or three semi trucks came whizzing by us because they couldn’t stop,” Daniels said. “A couple of trucks just missed us, so who knows what would have happened if we got hit by another truck while the bus was on its side.
Tragedy, that’s what.
“We looked back at the bus and said, ‘Wow, I can’t believe we just got off that bus and everybody was able to walk off.’ For 29 people to be able to walk off that bus was quite remarkable.”
While some of the players had deep cuts, concussions and broken bones, one player was clearly in trouble as everyone scrambled to safety and huddled together in the bitter cold – defenseman Casey Borer.
The crash happened in a remote location, and while calls were placed to 9-1-1, it took rescue teams more than 30 minutes to arrive.
“At the time, everybody was able to walk off the bus on their own, but as soon as Casey got off the bus he collapsed because he couldn’t lift his neck any more,” Daniels said. “At that point, we didn’t know what to do because we were in the middle of nowhere. Luckily our trainer was there and our players really stepped up and looked after the guys who were hurt the best they could. Casey was one guy where we knew something was wrong.”
Borer, three other players and the team’s radio announcer were taken to a local hospital in ambulances and remained overnight, while a school bus came to pick up the rest of the players – all of whom had to be cleared by doctors at Berkshire Medical Center before returning to Albany.
“Once I was cleared I walked around the emergency room seeing different players, and at that point they had Casey in a neck brace and he was scared, he didn’t know what to think,” Daniels said. “We called his parents right away and let them know what was going on and that we would be in touch. When you’re in a hospital bed, with a neck brace on and people are running around you get scared and you don’t know what to think. It was a tough time for Casey, not knowing how severe his injuries were going to be.”
The 6-2, 205-pound Borer had been promoted to the Canes for 14 games over the last two seasons before the accident, and played well. He was arguably the team’s best young defensive prospect. Now he was in a hospital bed, and as X-rays would prove, he had a broken neck.
“It didn’t really hit me until about five nurses came in and they started hooking me up to heart monitors and all these kind of devices,” Borer said. “I was going down to the ICU room and I saw that there was way more than one doctor and three nurses there, there was 20 people in there surveying me and taking a look at me. I knew then I would be staying overnight and was wondering what was going to happen to my life because this was major.”
Borer recently returned to the ice for the River Rats – after numerous doctor visits and major neck surgery this past summer – and recorded four assists in his first seven games. Only Joe Jensen, no longer with the organization after becoming a free agent, has yet to return to action. Jensen still suffers from post-concussion syndrome.
While Daniels’ photo could be in Webster’s Dictionary next to the definition of a journeyman NHL player, he’s considered a rising star in the coaching ranks because of his organizational skills and temperament – two attributes that served him well on that snowy February night a year ago in Becket, Mass.
“It helped that we had camaraderie, and the guys were looking out for each other,” Dwyer said. “If that happens on a regular bus maybe there is a bit of pandemonium and people looking out for just their family and friends. In a way, that helped because everyone was looking out for everyone.”
“They all have that common bond because we all experienced that together,” added Daniels.
And amazingly, all lived to tell about it.
Next up: Casey Borer’s long road back.