After Fred Parnell's truck suddenly became airborne as he drove to work along the main road on St. Paul Island last week, he said it felt like he had hit "a brick wall." He'd actually struck a northern fur seal.
"Most people hit a cow, a deer, a moose, a dog, all these animals, but you don't ever hear nothing about a seal," Parnell said on Wednesday. "This is my claim to fame."
Parnell, 75, has been working on the island, the largest of the four Pribilofs in the Bering Sea, for the past 4 1/2 years. Currently, he's public works director.
On Friday, he was headed to work at 6 a.m. in his Ford Ranger pickup along the Polovina Turnpike, which connects the village of 436 people to the island's airport.
He struck the marine mammal in the middle of the roadway, he said, about 25 to 30 yards away from the water.
"All of a sudden I hit something like a ton of bricks, my truck went up in the air and I lost control," Parnell said. "I must have turned the wheel to the left and was headed down an embankment towards water, so I tried to turn away without rolling it. I ended up in the mud and my tires got stuck in the mud, so it didn't roll."
Parnell said he staggered up the embankment to get a look at what he'd just collided with and discovered the injured seal.
"It was in the shadows," Parnell said. "When I got there it lifted up its head."
Parnell made his way to his office and called 911.
Director of Public Safety Nick Hunnicutt said he had to shoot the animal, which he said was a male and was estimated to weigh about 300 pounds. Tribal members were able to butcher the carcass for the local food pantry, Hunnicutt added.
Hunnicutt moved to St. Paul about a year ago from Arkansas but he's been in law enforcement for the last 14 years. A seal collision on the roadway was a new experience for him.
"The only thing I can think of is cows; it's the only thing I can compare this to," Hunnicutt said.
"The seal was right in the middle of the road. No one ever looks for seals in that area. It was dark and he ran right into it."
Parnell said he injured his hip, back and neck, and believes he struck his head during the collision, because that hurt too. He was out of commission until Tuesday.
His truck also took a beating. Parnell said the collision ripped part of his bumper off and he believes part of its front end will have to be rebuilt.
Parnell thinks he may be the only person ever to be part of a vehicle-seal traffic accident. The detail may be hard to run down.
"We don't have any statistics on the number of fur seals that are hit by vehicles; however, we don't recall this happening before," said Julie Speegle of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The animal was determined to be between 6 and 7 years old, she said.
"I might make the record books," Parnell said.