ENID — The metal jaws of a grain auger robbed Tyler Zander of his right leg. But he found healing, he said, because he accepted what God had asked him to endure.
“I'd cry in the shower,” he said. “I was jealous of everyone around me with two legs, and I felt inferior to everyone. I thought I wasn't good enough for my family or for my girlfriend. I felt like my best days were behind me.”
Physically, he said, “I was improving beyond what anyone had imagined. But mentally, emotionally, spiritually, I wasn't where I needed to be.
“I knew that if I had a chance of being happy again, I needed to get to a point where I wouldn't take this accident back — where if I was asked to do it all over again, I would.”
So he sought once again the peace he had felt on Aug. 4, 2011, as he waited on the floor of a grain elevator for a medical helicopter to take him to the hospital.
He was 17 on the day of the accident, and it was the summer before his senior year at Chisholm High School. He expected to spend the year playing on the varsity basketball team, spending time with his girlfriend and earning high academic marks before attending Oklahoma State University. He wanted to be a heart surgeon.
“I was a perfectionist and an overachiever. I used to think that in order to be someone of value, I had to accomplish something big. I always had to be in control.”
The day before his last scheduled workday at the Zaloudek Grain Co. elevator in Kremlin, Zander and his friend, Bryce Gannon, began their morning shift by placing wheat in a flat storage unit where an auger on the ground would pull it through a metal spinning shank before the grain was transferred to other storage locations.
Kremlin, a town of 258 just north of Enid, is in a region known for crop production. Wheat had been pouring into the elevator.
The temporary storage room was full. Wheat covered the floors and walls, leaving dusty air and causing their eyes to water. The auger was fast at work.
Shortly after 9 a.m., Zander heard Gannon scream.
“I just knew,” he said.
“I knew he was in the auger.”
Unaware of how to turn off the machine, Zander ran to Gannon. Zander reached out his hand, and for the first time in his life, he lost all control.
The auger caught Zander's leg, nearly tearing it off, and taking with it the fragile skin and tissue that led to his tailbone.
The pain, he said, was “like a metal rod tearing its way through your body.”
A co-worker ran to turn off the auger.
The boys lay with their legs wrapped around the screwdriver-like device until paramedics arrived.
Zander said it was the most peaceful time of his life.
“I think I accepted that I was going to die,” he said. “I remember thinking ‘Why am I not more scared than this?' Because my whole life, I had been taught that death was something scary. But I had never experienced a sense of peace like I did while I was in the auger.”
Long road to recovery
After a friend called Rhonda Zander and told her son might have been hurt, she called her husband, Lee Zander, and drove straight to the elevator, beating paramedics to the scene.
The couple moved past Tyler's concerned co-workers and toward their injured son.
“He was ghost white,” Rhonda Zander said. “But calm and talking to us.”
“I wasn't worried about losing my leg or never getting to play basketball again. I made them promise me that my younger brother would be saved,” Tyler Zander said, referring to his Christian faith.
The victims were taken to OU Medical Center where doctors confirmed each must have a leg amputated. Tyler Zander's parents were told he might not make it through the night.