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A lifesaving call:Two Havre women discover a link from 35 years ago

 


Bonnie Fladager had been styling Judy King's hair for three years before the two made a heart-stopping discovery: King was the telephone operator who had helped save the lives of Fladager and her family 35 years earlier.

Before the two crossed paths in a Havre hair salon, they'd never met.

"We were meant to be back together again," King said.

King, now executive director of Consumer Credit Counseling Service in Havre, had taken a job with Mountain States Telephone Co., a division of AT&T, right after graduating from high school in Livingston. King, whose name was then Judy Brown, went to work as an operator in Glendive.

On April 19, 1966, King answered a call about 3 a.m. The caller was incoherent, but she didn't assume it was a drunken or crank call, and stayed on the line.

"I didn't just block it out," King said. "It was a call you felt like you had to pursue."

Luckily for Bonnie and other members of her family, the Forchaks of Scobey, she did. They had eaten frozen shrimp in TV dinners - a fairly new product at the time - and had contracted botulism, food poisoning that can be fatal.

Fladager, 4 at the time, remembers it clearly. She and her sister, Shari, 5, woke up vomiting.

"I had on yellow pajamas and Shari had red. I remember that at 4 years old," she said. "It was so traumatic I remember everything."

The girls got out of bed, and then fell to the ground. They were unable to stand and had to pull themselves on their elbows to their parents' room.

Their mother, Cheryle Forchak, heard the girls' struggle and got out of bed. Then she collapsed to the floor in front of them.

John Forchak heard the commotion and tried to get up but also fell to the floor, nearly blacking out. He managed to grab the phone and dial zero.

"Long before there was 911, if you had an emergency you dialed zero," Fladager said.

The call was routed to the nearest operator, King, who was 150 miles away in Glendive. King said John Forchak was incoherent. After managing to hear key words, she called a doctor, Clyde Norman in Scobey, and sent him to the Forchak house.

"It took me a while and it was hard" to make out what Forchak was saying, she said. "I was done when the doctor was on his way."

But the story was just beginning. After calling medical experts to describe the Forchaks' symptoms, Norman was told they had botulism, an illness caused by a virulent bacteria.

The nearest antitoxin for the disease was in Washington, D.C. A relay of flights got the antitoxin to the Forchaks in time.

Fladager said she and her sister, although extremely ill, weren't in danger of dying once they were hospitalized. But her parents probably would have died without the antitoxin.

"They were racing against the clock for saving my parents. They attribute (saving them) to you," she told King as the two were being interviewed recently.

The Forchaks and King never met after the emergency, although John Forchak sent her a bracelet in thanks that she still has.

Forchack also named his third daughter in honor of King. Judy Forchak was born exactly nine months after King took his call, Fladager said.

Their trails split and went across several states before the two met.

King received an award from Mountain States Telephone Co., with an executive vice president of the company coming to Glendive to give it to her. After marrying Jerry King, she lived in Livingston, where her husband worked for Burlington Northern Railway.

BN closed its shop in Livingston, and Jerry King was out of a job. Judy King said 350 workers were transferred to other towns, but her husband wasn't one of them. He went to Cheyenne, Wyo., to learn to work on airplanes, and ended up with United Airlines in San Francisco.

While they were in Montana visiting relatives during Thanksgiving in 1997, Judy King's uncle in Missoula died. At the funeral, the Kings ran into a Havre railroader who told Jerry King that a job was available at Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway's operation in Havre.

Jerry soon completed 10 years with United to qualify for retirement benefits, and they moved to Havre in 1998.

Judy King first connected with Fladager when she called Elite Tan and Styling Salon for an appointment after seeing an ad in the yellow pages. Fladager's life also took several turns. After living in several states, she married Willard Fladager and moved back to Montana. Willard Fladager was a teacher at Blue Sky Schools in Rudyard and now works at Waddell & Reed Financial Services in Havre. Bonnie has styled hair in Havre since 1995 and opened Mile High Styling in 2001.

King became a regular customer of Fladager's and knew she had lived in Scobey. One day, she decided to ask Fladager a question.

She isn't sure what prompted her to ask it.

"I said, 'You know, Bonnie, when I was in Glendive in 1966 there was a family in Scobey that was poisoned,'" she said.

Fladager was shocked.

"I was speechless for the first time in 40 years," she said.

King asked what her maiden name was, but Fladager still couldn't speak.

"She said, 'It was Forchak, wasn't it?'" Fladager said.

"You said, 'Judy, that was us,'" King said.

Meeting the person who saved her family has helped Fladager deal with the trauma of that night in 1966, when she saw her parents fall to the floor in front of her.

"I can honestly say that's the most scared I've ever been. I can't remember a time I've been more scared," she said. "Shari and I kind of blocked it out. We didn't want to talk about it."

She said she had known her husband for 20 years, but had never told him about that night.

King and Fladager have become very close.

"I feel like Judy's family," Fladager said.

"We are family now," King added.

 

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