HEAD HUNTER - Fall from deer hunting stand puts former Airman in coma

  • Published
  • By Tim Barela
  • Torch Magazine
Staff Sgt. Curtis Hahn inched his way up the tall oak tree branch by branch. He planned to climb to about 20 feet, then pull up his deer stand chair by a rope he'd attached to his safety belt and secure it -- and himself -- to the trunk. As the 170-pound bow hunter ascended nearly 16 feet up the old oak, the branch he shifted his weight to suddenly snapped. He clawed wildly in an attempt to grab anything that could arrest his fall but only got a handful of air. As he plummeted toward earth, he pin-balled off another limb, which flipped him upside down into a horrifying headfirst dive.

Waiting for him at the base of the tree to break his fall? A small boulder, seemingly with his name on it.

The back of his head hit the solid rock with a sickening thud. Everything went black. ...

Hahn was a T-37 Tweet aircraft mechanic stationed at Randolph Air Force Base, Texas, at the time of his hunting accident Oct. 10, 1990. When his head slammed into the rock, he was knocked unconscious and slipped into a coma for the next 23 days. He awoke from his dream world to a real-life nightmare. At 30 years old, the Airman could no longer walk or talk. He couldn't even remember the names of his wife or two daughters. Twenty-one years later, at age 51, his recovery continues.

Hahn started his hunting excursion Oct. 6, four days prior to the mishap, on a 288-acre ranch owned by his in-laws in Llano, Texas. He'd gotten off to a great start, bagging two deer in the first three days. And one of the kills was the best shot he'd ever made with a bow and arrow -- 20 yards with the deer on the run.

"My brother-in-law taught me how to bow hunt; once I tried it, I was hooked," said Hahn, who never had the opportunity to hunt growing up in Cypress, Calif., 15 miles from Long Beach.

On the fourth day, Hahn was out at the ranch by himself. His wife was supposed to be with him, but they'd gotten into a heated argument and both needed a little space to cool down. So his wife stayed home in Cibolo, which is conveniently close to Randolph AFB but more than a two-hour drive to the acreage in Llano.

"I broke one of the first rules of hunting safety ... don't fight with your wife," Hahn joked. "Seriously, though, you should always hunt with a buddy."

Instead, the aircraft mechanic flew solo that morning. To make matters worse, he wasn't having much luck. By 10 a.m. he decided to move his deer stand elsewhere on the property.

When he found just the right spot, he began scaling the live oak tree. He wore a safety harness, but didn't intend to attach himself to the tree until he reached the point he planned to secure his chair. That's a decision he would later regret.

"I should have used my harness on the way up the tree," he said. "Then when the branch snapped, I would have gotten hung up and maybe sustained a few scrapes and bruises."

Instead the fall and collision with the rock knocked him out. To anyone who might have happened upon the scene, it probably would have appeared as though Hahn was taking a late morning nap. But while he had no visible injuries on the outside of his body, the impact had severely traumatized his brain.

"I hit the back of my head, but the worst damage was to the frontal lobe where my brain crashed into my skull," Hahn said.

Phyllis, Hahn's wife at the time, tried to reach him via telephone at about noon that day. When he didn't answer after several attempts, she called her aunt who lived close by to go check on him. The aunt drove around the property, but was unable to find Hahn.

"You have to remember, I was trying to make myself invisible to the deer," he said. "I was in the trees, wearing camouflaged clothing -- even my face was painted."

They deduced that he was still out hunting and was simply difficult to see. So the aunt went back home.

But when midnight rolled around, Phyllis knew something was definitely wrong. She loaded the kids into the car and called her father.

"Her dad told her to stay put and let him go look for me," Hahn said. "I think, more than anything, he worried that he was only going to find a corpse, and he didn't want his daughter and grandchildren to be the first ones to come upon that."

At about 1 a.m., Hahn's father-in-law called Axel Bigingham, the brother-in-law who had taught the staff sergeant how to bow hunt. By the time Phyllis' parents stopped to meet Bigingham at his house in Cherokee, Texas, they didn't end up arriving at the Llano ranch until shortly after 3 a.m.

"I had been at the ranch (earlier in the week), and Curtis had shown me his tree stand," Bigingham said. "He said he might hunt somewhere along the mountain later and pointed out the truck window in the general vicinity (where he planned to hunt). I wish I had paid more attention to where he had pointed.

"This really disturbed me ... it would be hard enough to find him in the dark. He could be anywhere. Still, I came to the realization that I had a better chance of finding Curtis than anyone."

Indeed, Bigingham not only had an idea, albeit sketchy, where Hahn might have headed, but he probably knew the Airman's hunting habits better than anyone.

As they arrived at the ranch, Bigingham said he "hoped for the best, but feared the worst." His anxiety was well-placed. For even though, unbeknownst to them, Hahn clung to life, the swelling in his brain was reaching the critical point. Only the miracle of the year's first cold front, which had moved in that morning to interrupt an unusually hot fall, had slowed the swelling enough to give Hahn a chance at survival.

"We searched the immediate area around the house and barn, but Curtis was not to be found," Bigingham said. "We got his dog Cain and brought him along, hoping he might be helpful in finding Curtis."

They drove out to Hahn's original deer stand, only to discover his platform gone.
Now the search would quite literally be a shot in the dark.

"I drove along the base of the mountain to a spot where it seemed as good a place as any to start looking," Bigingham said. "What made me stop there I don't know."

They all got out of the truck and began calling for Hahn. ... No response. Cain sniffed about and headed off in one direction with Phyllis' parents in close pursuit, but some nagging feeling told Bigingham that the dog was not going in the right direction.

"I grew impatient and (went) in the direction I wanted to go," he said.

What drove him that way, he still can't answer. Just a gut feeling or divine intervention, he said. But as he moved toward the mountain and shined his flashlight through the trees and the blinding darkness of 4 a.m, something reflected off of the beam.

"All of a sudden, I saw part of the stand sticking up from behind some rocks near the base of the tree," Bigingham said.

"I found the stand!" he hollered to his in-laws.

"I rushed on up ahead and looked up in the tree hoping to see Curtis hung by his heels or something simple like that. But he wasn't there," Bigingham said.

With his head on a swivel and his flashlight breaching the darkness, he did a 360-degree search of the surrounding area. Abruptly, he flashed the beam toward his feet. There lay Hahn. Bigingham was nearly standing on him.

"I found him!" he shouted.

"Curtis looked almost as though he were asleep," Bigingham said. "I quickly checked for a pulse and was I ever relieved to find one. And he was warm to the touch, which made me feel better."

Hahn stirred slightly and moaned.

"I told him to lie still," he said. "We didn't know the extent of his injury, and we didn't want him to hurt himself any further."

Paramedics quickly arrived, but their ambulance couldn't traverse the rugged terrain en route to the austere mishap site. So they secured Hahn to a backboard and loaded him into the back of Bigingham's truck. After transferring him to the ambulance, they rushed him to the emergency room in Llano. From there he was airlifted to Brackenridge Hospital in Austin where they were better equipped to deal with severe head injuries.

Hahn was in a coma for close to a month, during which his body often went into convulsions and shook violently. When he finally awoke, he had screws in his head, hoses going down his nose and throat, and wires "coming from everywhere," he said. Suffering severe brain damage, he initially was robbed of the ability to walk and talk.

When he was well enough to move after six weeks, the Air Force had him transferred to Wilford Hall Medical Center at Lackland AFB in San Antonio.

After three months, and with some intensive physical therapy, he regained his ability to walk normally. The first words he was able to speak were "my wife," but he was unable to remember her name for nearly nine months. His hearing, which hadn't been great after nearly 10 years of working on A-10 and T-38 jet aircraft, was even worse after the mishap.

"I was out there 18 hours before they found me; so even the cold front wasn't enough to keep my brain from swelling and doing more damage," Hahn said. "Parts of my brain were dead."

During his recovery process, he had to use flashcards a kindergartener could master. They included pictures with simple words, such as phone, dog, book, toothbrush and airplane.

While he got out of the hospital in December 1990, just in time for Christmas, "it took me three years to be able to go into
a store, buy something and leave without them knowing I had a problem," said Hahn, who had to be medically discharged from the Air Force. "Even today, before I speak I have to know what words I am going to say before I open my mouth because there's a lot more going on in here than what I am able to elaborate," he added as he pointed to his temple. "It's a war that's not over yet."

The accident changed him in other ways, too.

"I was tough to live with for a while," he said. "I would lose control and break things: cups of coffee, the wall, the car."

He believes the results of the mishap helped lead to a divorce from his first wife six years after the fall. He remarried eight years later and now lives with his new bride, Robin, and her 14-year-old son, Christopher Stultz, only 15 minutes from Randolph AFB. Hahn owns a small 11-acre ranch in Seguin, Texas, where he raises whitetail deer as a business/hobby. He also is a wildlife photographer. And he still goes bow hunting every year, usually at Camp Bullis on the northwest side of San Antonio.

"I still love to hunt," Hahn said. "Nowadays, I'm just smarter about it."