The last moment Israel Hale felt the ground beneath his feet, he was standing behind his truck and trailer in the westbound lane of Dimond Boulevard.
It was Sunday evening a week ago. Hale's trailer held lumber for a house he and his wife are building in the Butte area. Something had gone wrong with it and he had stopped in the road near the Salvation Army store. His wife, Cori, was in the cab. He walked around behind the load and bent down to look under it. He stood up. Then a car piled into his body. And in a second, an ordinary errand became life-altering.
That day began for Hale like a usual Sunday, with a service at Manna Baptist church in Palmer. Hale attended with Cori and his mother, Rose, his brother David said. After that, he went to a little home church in Lazy Mountain, where he saw some of his 14 brothers and sisters, according to his boss, Dennis Byler.
Hale is 25 and has made a name for himself around Palmer for shearing sheep and alpacas. He also welds, paints and works construction for Byler. He is an outgoing, powerfully built man. He stands over six feet tall and weighs more than 200 pounds. His outsized hands leave an impression on anyone who shakes them.
When the car hit, it drove Israel's legs into the steel lip of his trailer and then bounced back, his brother said. Israel lay in the road. His legs were almost totally severed below the knee.
"His wife told me that when he fell and landed on the road, he said, 'What happened?' " Byler said. "He couldn't process it. It was so quick."
Hale is the sixth child of Robert Hale, a fundamentalist Christian patriarch known as Papa Pilgrim, whose story is well known in Alaska. He raised Israel and his brothers and sisters at a remote family camp outside McCarthy, with no books but the Bible. He came into the public eye a decade ago because of a high-profile land access fight with the National Park Service. Then, in 2005, Hale was indicted for assault, rape and incest, involving one of his daughters. Details of brutal abuse at the camp became public in court hearings. Israel was the first member of the family to bring his father to the attention of authorities. He was a teenager at the time. Robert Hale was sentenced to 14 years. He died in prison in 2008.
The Hale children now live mostly around Palmer. Some stay with another large Christian family, the Buckinghams. Some of the older ones are married and have started their own lives.
Israel and Cori were married six months ago. David is married to Cori's sister, Heidi. Cori and Heidi are from another religious family, the Rubios. The women dress in long skirts and keep their heads covered.
Last Sunday afternoon after church, Israel and Cori went to Eklutna Lake, where they explored by kayak, David said. The day was clear and warm. The cottonwoods were golden. Israel took pictures on his iPhone. After that, they drove to Anchorage to pick up lumber they'd found on Craigslist.
'I SAW THE SMOKE'
Around 7 p.m. that evening, Ida Brothers, a 32-year-old nurse and waitress at Orso, was driving east on Dimond when she looked over and saw the accident with Hale's trailer. It was seconds after it happened.
"I saw the smoke come up on impact," she said.
Her 9-year-old son encouraged her to stop and help, she said. She made a U-turn, parked and ran to the scene. The driver of the car, a 17-year-old girl, sat on the curb, crying, Brothers said. Police would later say she reported being blinded by the low angle of the sun. It's unclear if her car slowed at all before it made impact. The accident crumpled the front of her dark sedan. Cori appeared to be in shock. Blood pooled around Israel as he lay on the pavement.
"His legs were completely gone," Brothers said.
Brothers, who works night nursing shifts at Providence Alaska Medical Center, said she felt an odd calm come over her. She had just minutes to help him or he would die from blood loss.
"My main goal was stop the bleeding."
Other motorists ran to help. Brothers asked onlookers for scarves. They produced them. One of them was the kind used for belly dancing, decorated with gold coins. With the help of another man, Brothers tied tourniquets around Israel's legs.
"I tied it really, really tight until the bleeding slowed down. I put a double knot into it and pulled it as tight as a I could," she said.
Then she held Israel's head and talked to him while they waited for paramedics to arrive. Time seemed to stretch out then. Every minute seemed like 10. When paramedics got there, Brothers helped move him into the ambulance and watched it drive away, she said. Then she got back to her car.
"I just said, 'God, please, let him live,' " she said. "He's so young and he has so much to live for."
AFTERMATH OF A MIRACLE
Israel lived. He spent hours in surgery Sunday night. Police credited Brothers and the other man at the scene, who hasn't been publicly identified, with saving him. The impact of the sedan was so intense, doctors found pieces of the plastic from the car embedded in his bones, David said. His legs had to be amputated.
When he returned from the operating room, Israel was unconscious, on a ventilator. Hours passed. He opened his eyes a few times and gave his family reason to believe he recognized them. David considers it a miracle Brothers happened to pass the scene.
Brothers visited Israel after he came out of surgery. She believes God put her on Dimond Boulevard, she said. She could have driven by just a minute earlier or a minute later. She'd just ended 33 hours of work at the hospital and the restaurant. She was dead tired.
"It blows my mind how it was so automatic," she said. "It was an incredible experience, I know that sounds insane."
It's not clear whether Israel knows yet that his legs are gone. Doctors plan to tell him when he's no longer on the breathing machine, David said.
"I think Israel will handle it. He's a pretty resilient young man. He's dealt with a lot of tragedy in his life. It's going to be hard," David said.
Israel will rely on his faith, David said. Israel's legs were a part of his strength, his best trait.
"Sometimes God asks for our best," David said.
A PERMANENT CHANGE
To get to Israel and Cori Hale's half-built house, turn off Bodenburg Loop at a gray Colony-era barn that's been cleaved in half by a hundred winters. Photographer Marc Lester and I met Israel's boss, Byler, there late Thursday. The house is just one story, with wide window holes that face a silty plain and a distant arm of the Matanuska River.
Byler has hired a number of the nine Hale boys over the years. Because of their isolated upbringing, many had mechanical talents but lacked basic skills like being able to read and do math. Israel overcame all of that, Byler said.
"Whatever he puts his hand to, seems like he does it well," Byler said.
Byler has eight children and lives on a farm at Point MacKenzie. Recently, Israel helped him make hay, he said. His oldest boys, in their late teens, are tall and strong but neither could touch Israel at throwing 50-pound bales. He never seemed to tire, Byler said.
"His strength really was a very real part of him," he said. "You couldn't help but notice him if you were around him. Now that's permanently changed."
Byler was building the house on contract for Israel, he said. Now he's donating his services. He's also organizing suppliers and contractors to donate theirs. In just a few days, he's had tremendous response to his requests for donations. His goal is to finish the house over the next few months so Israel has a handicap-accessible home to return to and less debt to pay. Israel has no health insurance.
"Israel is kind of like me," he said. "Israel doesn't really have a lot of other options but to work."
He'd love to find a way to hire him once he recovers, he said. Israel will want to be useful.
"Basically, we still live in America and there's still a lot of opportunity for someone with the right attitude and the right work ethic," he said.
If Israel could talk about it, he'd say that God had a hand in saving him, Byler said. There was a plan for him and Cori, he said. They would touch people, he said. The facts of what happened still shock him. It weighed on his mind that day on a long drive in from Soldotna.
"I've thought a lot about that, how that quick," he said, snapping his fingers. "In a blink of an eye ..."
A life can change completely.O'Malley blog