Rehberg returns to work with walker, crutches
September 10, 2009
MATT GOURAS and MATTHEW DALY Associated Press Writers HELENA
Rep. Denny Rehberg on Wednesday provided the harrowing details of a boat crash after dinner and drinks two weeks ago as he returned to Washington using a walker and crutches, saying he crawled out of the wreckage with only his cowboy boot holding his shattered ankle in place. The congressman was with a state senator and three other people when they crashed into the steep and rocky shore of Flathead Lake during the August recess. Authorities investigating the accident have zeroed in on the drinking that night by the driver, state Sen. Greg Barkus, as they consider filing charges. Rehberg told reporters during a conference call Wednesday that Barkus did not appear impaired. Prosecutors have not released the driver's blood-alcohol level yet. Rehberg said he had a couple pints of beer that night over dinner, and tests at the hospital showed his blood-alcohol level was 0.05 percent, below the legal limit of 0.08 percent. The other boat passengers included two Rehberg staffers and Barkus' wife, who suffered relatively minor injuries. Rehberg said he believes his two injured staffers will eventually be able to return to work. The most seriously hurt, state director Dustin Frost, has improved significantly in recent days as he recovers from a serious brain injury. The congressman said that he did not notice whether Barkus was drinking during a dinner event that lasted several hours. Rehberg said he was busy talking with a lot of different people who wanted to discuss various congressional issues. "I have no idea what anyone else felt. We could go through and second guess this forever," Rehberg said. "I saw no signs of impairment at all." Rehberg said that he remembers Barkus, who was standing while driving, commenting on how dark it was that evening and adjusting his navigation system before they hit the shore. Rehberg said that Barkus gave an indication that their supposed location did not seem to match up with the darkened scenery. "I looked over and he scrolled over to a different picture on his GPS, and he commented this is where we were coming from and going to, and it was about that time we hit," Rehberg said. The crash left him badly injured. "I didn't lose consciousness, although I was rolling around like a rag doll," Rehberg said. "I am pretty bruised up." Rehberg was in his Washington office Wednesday, preparing for the president's planned speech on health care. Wearing a denim shirt with a jacket and tie, he sported a gash on his right forehead and a large boot on his left ankle. He did not show signs of swelling or other obvious effects from the accident. "I'm a fast healer," said Rehberg, whose left ankle was shattered in the accident and has been replaced by an aluminum rod. His wife, Jan, rode with him on the 48-hour Amtrak trip from Montana to Washington and is helping the congressman navigate around the city. The injuries left him unable to fly back to Washington. The five-term Republican is a longtime Amtrak supporter and said train conductors and other workers were extremely gracious maybe because they had heard he had won an award from a rail passengers group for his work on behalf of Amtrak, Rehberg joked. He expects to be on crutches for up to six weeks and said he can go to Appropriations Committee hearings easily, because meetings are held in the office building where Rehberg is based. Rehberg said that he is focused on getting back to work, and making sure his friends and staffers get healthy. He said his deputy chief of staff, Kristin Smith, is still recovering at home. Rehberg said they have asked House officials whether the staffers' medical bill will be paid for through their normal health insurance or will be considered an on-the-job injury covered separately. The congressman said he views the incident as a tragic accident, and is not yet second guessing any decisions or pointing fingers. "There will be plenty of time to second guess things and such, but what is on my mind is getting myself back on track, and getting my friends and staff back on track as well," Rehberg said.