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Top 10 Stories of 2022: Survival At All Costs

Aug 04, 2023Aug 04, 2023

As fast as silk slides from a pocket, Doug Bichler slipped within inches of eternity. When the North Dakota cattleman was savagely contorted by a hay baler and trapped by the machinery for almost an hour, his survival chances dwindled to the likelihood of snow in summer.

Alone on a farm, with a cell phone maddeningly perched beyond his grasp on a tractor tire, and a pain level threatening to reach insufferable levels, Bichler was wedged in a vise of belts and rollers, his voice alternating between unrequited cries for help and pleas to God.

"I reached a point where I had no options left," he recalls. "Anything. Anything to get out and back to my wife. I decided I’d pull my arm out."

Five years after Bichler's survival and escape from the baler, his recovery is a tale of remarkable resilience, punctuated by deep concern for the safety of others: "I feel blessed to still be alive, and now I take the opportunity to tell my story, even if it only helps a single person."

Ten miles east of the Missouri River, in the southcentral pocket of North Dakota, Bichler's Emmons County operation sits in the heart of topographical change, between rugged hills and buttes to the west, and grassland and farmland to the east. Sweeping. Grand. God's country.

Going into June 2017, Bichler, 37, was in a sweet spot, holding strong to youth while maintaining a successful ranching business — Bichler Simmentals. His wife, Maria, was eight months pregnant with the couple's firstborn, and life was equal parts excitement and expectation. Top of the mountain.

Until late June.

June 26, a Monday of promise, provided Bichler with blue skies and temperatures in the mid-80s—made-to-order conditions for hay season and the first baling of an alfalfa field.

Bichler was positioned directly in front of a converted toolshed, preparing the baler for its intended use that evening. The toolshed, once the milk house connected to the farm's old dairy barn, blocked Bichler's view of his home to the rear. Simply, the 2012-model baler was positioned in a blind spot in relation to Bichler's home.

Exiting the tractor, dressed in a long-sleeved T-shirt, old jeans, and work shoes—Bichler proceeded to pull net wrap from the baler, a standard maintenance job. Polyethylene hay bale wrap sometimes tears, sticks to belts, or attracts itself, ultimately creating a clog requiring manual removal.

From a bird's-eye view, the only anomaly associated with Bichler's actions or attire was a pair of work gloves. Almost any other day of summer would have found Bichler barehanded, but on June 26, he chose the superior grip of leather—a significant player in the unfolding turmoil.

As Bichler began baler maintenance, Maria walked over from the house and met her husband with the conversational fare of family and marriage, replaying the day's movements and forecasting the week's likelihoods. Dusk approaching and Bichler nearing completion of maintenance, Maria returned to the house to wait for Bichler to join her for supper, but she soon tired—an increasingly frequent pattern as her pregnancy neared delivery.

With Maria out of sight and earshot, and only 15 to 20 minutes from completion of baler work, Bichler, once again, was alone.

While Bichler removed net wrap from the innards of the baler, the tractor engine was shut down. He patiently extracted the ribbons and clumps of wrap—save one solitary bit. "There was one piece that had kind of melted to a belt and was stubborn. I figured once the belt kicked back on and spun, it would wear and fall off on its own, which is exactly what happened."

Finished with wrap removal, Bichler moved to the next item on the baler checklist—oiling the machine. However, he neglected a major step in the routine—unlocking the door mechanism. "There is a mechanism on the baler to lock the door open, so it can't shut on you. I had the door-lock on while I was working. When I got done removing net wrap, I forgot to unlock the door-lock mechanism to allow the door to close."

"I then started the tractor because I wanted to oil all the chains on the baler. That was the last thing on the to-do list. I started the tractor and engaged the PTO because it's easiest to oil chains as they spin."

Bichler oiled the chains with the tractor engine running, returned the oil to storage, and then unlocked the door mechanism, preparing to close the baler door, turn off the tractor, and shut down.

Minutes away from the safety of his house, Bichler's eyes caught movement as the last straggler of wrap—the intransigent clinger—dislodged from the baler belt in a freak convergence of timing. Instinctively reacting to the bait, Bichler's right hand shot out to grab the falling clump of plastic. Instantly, the 5’10", 170-pound North Dakota cattleman was sucked into a tomb.

Bichler was hurtled along a ghastly ride by the baler belts. "When I reached for the chunk of net wrap, the leather gloves I was wearing acted just like a grip. To this day, I think if I was barehanded, the belt probably wouldn't have pulled me in."

Wrapped over rollers, a series of belts move in a vertical trajectory within the baler. Bichler was pulled into the motion: "It was too fast to describe," he says. "I was pulled up and around the baler. How? To this day, I don't know, but it happened. I went up off the ground and crashed back down, and I passed out."

Regaining consciousness within seconds, Bichler awoke to find himself in a macabre tangle. Standing at extension on his tiptoes—one shoe on and one shoe ripped off in the initial fray—his right arm was held inside the baler up to bicep level, with his hand in the grip of two moving metal rollers and belts. Further complicating the contortion, Bichler's shirt was cinched tightly around his neck, creating a garrote effect.

"The shirt had torn off me, but the material had gathered around my neck and was choking me. I managed to get my head out of the shirt, and as soon as I did, the baler sucked it in. Literally, I never saw the shirt again."

Looking at his arm, Bichler took in the sight of shredded flesh and knew from the get-go: His limb was gone. "I don't want anyone to ever have to see what I saw."

Mind racing, body surging with adrenaline, Bichler took stock of his survival chances.

Maria had gone to the house, and Bichler was out of sight. With the tractor running, Maria would never hear a cry for help. Further, Bichler had no means of cell phone salvation. During bailer maintenance, while shuffling between talking with Maria and answering a text, he placed his phone on a tractor tire. Several feet or a million miles away, the cell phone was a non-factor.

Counterintuitively, Bichler's blood loss was minimal. Charged by friction of movement, the belts produced ample heat to cauterize Bichler's wounds as his flesh tore open. "I couldn't feel anything except intense tingling like when your hand is asleep. It was as if my mind can't afford to think about pain."

Weighing his options, Bichler was aware of the most probable outcome: "Nobody was missing me. I knew I could be trapped all night. I knew I would die."

Several of Bichler's dogs walked over at first sight of the commotion, but didn't raise alarm and lost interest, bedding down within proximity of the toolshed. Cell phone beyond grasp, dogs intermittently glancing curiously at the predicament, and location view cloaked by the barn, Bichler began alternating between screams and prayers. "I had faith I would be alright, but I also had thoughts of finality. I was preparing my mind and praying at the same time. I’d yell for Maria until I got tired, and then I’d pray for a while, and then I’d yell again."

During his entrapment, Bichler maintained a vigil of prayer—all against the backdrop din of a tractor idling and baler rumbling. It was a maddening wedge, feet from a cell phone and yards from home, yet inches from death.

Almost an hour after first reaching into the machine with a gloved hand, Bichler felt a slight extra pull from the baler belts. "It was like my arm was going in a few degrees deeper. Could I have been pulled in further? I don't know, but I felt the sensation and didn't want to find out."

Bichler reached a point of reckoning—survival at any cost: "I decided to pull my own arm out of the baler."

Nothing to lose but life. From Bichler's perspective, his limb was a loss—either by hospital amputation or baler extraction. "I was no longer worried about my arm, but even though the tissue was ripped apart, I didn't know if I’d be able to pull it out."

Collecting all his strength, Bichler strained downward with his entire body—come what may. No dice. He reared up and repeated the maneuver a second time, but the baler belt maintained its hold.

Once again, a third go, Bichler lurched away from the baler, thrusting for his life. "I pulled as hard as I possibly could and my arm came out. I have no idea how it came out of that machine, but I was free."

Upon Bichler's escape, despite a shredded arm with no function, his first concern was for Maria—eight months pregnant. He could not allow her to see the gore. Bichler climbed into the tractor to turn it off, walked to the house, and grabbed a sweatshirt from the car. He then wrapped the arm and entered the house to call an ambulance.

"I went inside, called for my wife, went downstairs, and dialed 911. My mind was racing, but we were in the process of remodeling the house, and I wanted to go to the utility room in case I got blood on the floor. It was the most irrelevant thought process, but my ideas were muddled at the time."

Answering Bichler's voice, Maria woke, admittedly groggy, from a nap and walked downstairs, eyeing a drop of blood on the floor. In the immediacy of the moment, she had no reason to connect the blood to trauma. Bloody nose?

In a calm, tempered tone, arm covered and damage hidden, Bichler offered an explanation. "Maria, I’ve had an accident. I’m going to lose my arm, but I’m going to be OK."

"Maria looked like I said something nonsensical," Bichler adds. "I wouldn't let her see my arm. She tried to look and I just said, ‘It's gone. It's all going to be OK.’ I was on the phone with paramedics the moment she came downstairs, and she took over the call. Help was on the way."

Several months after the tumultuous loss of his non-dominant right arm and a grueling physical ordeal, Bichler fought a second battle—a cage match against himself. He was a first-time father in the realm of a no-sleep existence with an agriculture business to run, all while learning the new physical rules of ranch labor for a one-armed cattleman.

"That was the worst time right there," Bichler describes. "We had a new baby daughter, but I couldn't contribute and it was hard. I had family and friends all around—an amazing group of people—but reality had set in and I felt defeated."

Bichler made a conscious decision to avoid the pitfalls of isolation and leaned even harder on supporters. "When you are in a compromised state, sometimes you just need someone to listen, and if it's not a physical injury, it can be any problem. I’ve now got buddies around me, in North Dakota, across the country—even in Australia—that visit with me and I also check on them."

Five years after the accident, following multiple surgeries, Bichler battles nerve pain that impedes the use of a prosthetic. "I don't know where this will go as far as my healing. All I know is that I’m so blessed, and if I’m one-handed for life, I’m content."

"Injuries are part of agriculture because we push so hard and that's the nature of what we do to make ends meet," Bichler continues. "We get tired and take shortcuts. If I had just gotten out of the tractor and unlocked the door so it could close, I’d still have my arm. I greased the chains with the baler running because my family has always done it that way and it's easier, but that is bad reasoning. Turn your equipment off. Don't make excuses."

Bichler rests on a certainty: He should have died in the baler. "God spared me that day for a reason and I share this story with a bigger purpose. If I tell my story and help just one person avoid injury, then that one person is enough."