Rehberg recounts boat crash: 'Ten seconds later, we hit the rock'
It was cold on Flathead Lake the night of Aug. 27, U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg remembers.
State Sen. Greg Barkus, R-Kalispell, was standing as he drove the boat that carried his wife, Rehberg and two of Rehberg's staffers toward the east shore, the Montana Republican recalled Wednesday.
Kathy Barkus was sitting at the top of some steps leading down into the cabin area, Rehberg said. He was in the passenger's seat beside Greg Barkus. Rehberg's Deputy Chief of Staff Kristin Smith and State Director Dustin Frost were in the back of the boat.
"Kristin got cold She stood up and said 'I'm moving into the front,' " Rehberg said. "Ten seconds later we hit the rock."
Rehberg spoke publicly on Wednesday for the first time since the crash that injured all five in the boat. He initiated the conference call with reporters after returning to Washington, D.C., over the Labor Day weekend to take part in 6:30 p.m. votes as Congress resumed Tuesday.
Frost, 27, is the only passenger from that night who remains hospitalized. As the most critically injured, he still is being treated at Kalispell Regional Medical Center for a severe closed head injury.
Rumors have been swirling that Barkus was drinking the night he got into his boat and drove it from The Docks at Lakeside back toward Wayfarers State Park near Bigfork.
But the Congressman insisted he saw no indication that Barkus was impaired.
"No, absolutely not. It would be like me talking to you right now," Rehberg said. "We can all second-guess ourselves But I saw no impairment at all."
Rehberg said he has not talked with Barkus since the crash but he has spoken with Smith, who he said is recuperating at her family's home, and with Frost's family. Frost himself was still unconscious when Rehberg and Smith left the hospital Aug. 31. Kathy Barkus also was released that day.
"I asked [Frost's' father, Rod, to give me an opportunity to talk with him at their earliest convenience," Rehberg said. "He's talking some I guess he has his sense of humor back."
Pain medication isn't hampering Rehberg's ability to focus on his Congressional tasks, he said, as he's taking only two baby aspirin a day to avoid blood clotting in his foot. He received a broken ankle and slight fracture near his eye.
"I'm a rancher, and I say I'm a clumsy rancher, so this is not my first rodeo," he said, recounting several other injuries. "You just kind of throw that out of your mind. Once it happens, you just have it."
Rehberg recounted in some detail the events of that Thursday afternoon and evening.
He was on an intense schedule of town hall meetings and hospital visits during the August break, so had arranged an Aug. 27 evening of relaxation with Barkus several weeks in advance. The Barkuses boated over to Bigfork to pick up Rehberg, Frost and Smith at 5:30 p.m., then headed up the Flathead River, stopped at an acquaintance's boat dock for a few minutes and then went to Lakeside.
They arrived about 6:30 p.m. at what Rehberg described as a big family dinner where those who spend the summer on the lake gather for a season-closer. Socializing and chatting one-on-one about issues pending in Congress took up the first part of the evening, but eventually groups ordered dinner off the menu.
"It was a working dinner for me," Rehberg said. "I was out on my own, like politicians do." He said Smith and Frost followed suit, stepping over to help Rehberg with specific questions as needed.
Alcohol was a part of the evening. When they arrived, Rehberg, co-chair of the small-brewers' caucus in Congress, said he spotted a Cold Smoke beer on tap that he hadn't tried before, so he ordered a draught.
"That lasted me a couple hours. It was more social, something to hold in your hand," he said. Somebody eventually handed him another beer but he said he doesn't remember finishing that one. He figured he had 1 1/2 or 2 beers the whole evening, and thinks Frost had a beer and Smith a glass of wine.
But he said he has no idea on Barkus' alcohol consumption.
"I don't remember whether Greg was drinking," he said. "When I'm working I'm thinking about me I wasn't paying attention to anybody else. Even Dustin and Kristin when I look at them I expect them to pay attention to me," and step in with what he needs to help the person he's talking with.
"I never did hear Greg and Kathy order anything," he said.
After dinner they called it an early night and got back into the boat about 10 p.m. He said Kathy Barkus had "a 12-ounce, or less, margarita shaker in a six-pack cooler when she got on the boat. That's all I'm aware that's on the boat."
With Frost's help, Barkus installed and checked the running lights, then took off for the return ride to Bigfork. Along the way Barkus explained water depths, lake channels and navigation poles to Rehberg, showing him the function of the boat's GPS system.
He said they did not realize how close to shore the boat had approached before hitting the rocks.
"Greg was saying that just doesn't seem right. We were looking around and it was dark over there. He was saying there was supposed to be light over there. I swear I didn't see the light on shore," Rehberg said. The moon was in its last quarter that night, appearing as a half-disc.
"Greg's GPS didn't match up with the terrain. I looked up and he scrolled to a different picture on the GPS, he commented and right at that time we dropped."
Asked to estimate the speed of the boat, Rehberg said he thinks law-enforcement estimates that it was going 40 mph or faster are wrong.
"I'm not a good judge because I wasn't paying attention but I've water skied at 30 or 40 miles an hour and this was not water-skiing speed," he said. "Your hair would have been flipping around. I would in no way say we were going 40; I would say 25."
He does not remember the boat hitting anything before landing on the rocks. Investigators have said the boat approached shore at an oblique angle and hit something underwater, propelling it up onto the rocks where it slid back before coming to rest at the water line.
Campers and the camp host at Wayfarers heard the crash and came to the rescue.
"I did not lose consciousness, although I was rolling around like a rag doll," Rehberg said.
He said he and Kathy Barkus were in the boat when the boat came to rest, Frost and Greg Barkus were in the water on the rocks, and Smith was the "most cognizant," pointing rescuers to the injured. They attended first to Frost as the most seriously injured, Rehberg said, then worked their way through the others.
Because Smith and Frost were staffing him for the night, Rehberg has asked his Chief of Staff Jay Martin to check into Congressional insurance coverage for their medical bills.
Since Rehberg has returned to Congress he has gotten calls of concern from colleagues on both sides of the aisle, he said, including Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
He was present for three votes Tuesday night and on Wednesday morning was looking ahead to President Obama's speech that night. He has postponed a hearing scheduled for today on Crow Indian Reservation water rights, however.
What's always on his mind, he said, is the health of Frost, Smith and the Barkuses.
"I want everyone to be back and well," he said. He needs his injured staffers, including Frost, on board to keep his own work up to speed.
"All indications are that he will be back, and is making progress nicely," Rehberg said.
"He's a great kid, 27 years old and in the National Guard In the guard he's a chaplain assistant and it doesn't hurt to have God on your side," he said.
Asked to reflect on lessons learned, he took a rain check.
"It's one of those things - accidents happen. You think about it and second guess and wonder. I'm not to that point yet," he said.
"I want these guys to recuperate. Right now I'm thinking about getting myself back on track and getting my staff recovered and back."
Reporter Nancy Kimball can be reached at 758-4483 or by e-mail at email@example.com