GILLETTE — The last thing Shane Fortner remembers is driving by the last big hill before entering Gillette.
He was in his truck, tailing his dad, Bill, who was driving ahead of him north on Highway 59, heading into the south side of Gillette.
What he remembers after that is less clear.
After spending the past six weeks in hospitals, his memory is still hazy regarding what happened before and after a Sheriff’s Office deputy and multiple bystanders rescued him from his burning pickup truck.
“That’s the tricky part,” Shane said. “I was in so much pain and so disoriented. What I think might be memories might have been hallucinations.”
After being pulled from the cab of his burning truck, he remembers sitting on the side of the road, badly burned and waiting for an ambulance, peeling burnt skin from his right arm and telling his father that, “It ain’t no big deal, it’s just a little burn. Let’s go home.”
It would take more than a month, but he finally got his wish.
By the time he first regained consciousness, he found himself hospitalized in the burn unit of North Colorado Medical Center in Greeley, Colorado.
It’s been six weeks since that accident, and Fortner is just now heading home. Even though he said he never doubted his own survival, he may have been alone in that regard. Anyone who saw the remnants of his burning truck could only imagine what happened to the man trapped inside of it.
He spent the early weeks of his recovery with severe burns on his head and body and unable to speak, due to inhalation burns. But despite his laundry list of injuries and equally long list of surgeries, if it weren’t for a handful of strangers who materialized seemingly out of nowhere, it would have certainly been even worse.
From the scene of the crash, the ambulance took Shane to the Emergency Department where he stayed for two hours before being life flighted to the hospital in Greeley.
His wife, Paige, drove with Bill down to Colorado a day-and-a-half later, still unsure what Shane’s condition was like.
“I’ve been (by his side) ever since,” Paige said.
The prognosis was unclear at first. Shane was sedated for about three weeks, drifting in and out of consciousness as he underwent multiple surgeries that included skin graft procedures. Then his condition showed signs of improvement.
He lost his voice in the accident. But once again, through more treatment, he was able to slowly regain his voice around the end of August and can now verbalize his trademark humor without skipping a beat.
True to his devil-may-care attitude throughout the ordeal, Shane wasn’t very concerned about whether he got his voice back.
“I’m not much of a worrier, honestly,” Shane said. “I wasn’t worried about anything. I figured if all else fails, I know how to use a pen and paper.”
That nonchalant approach to his treatment and condition gave comfort to his family, who he said had to deal with more than he did.
“I know it was harder on (Paige) probably than anybody else,” Shane said. “It was harder on her, probably, than it was on me.”
Paige said his sense of humor and personality began to show while he was still in the burn unit. Although Shane is not the worrier, Paige said she played devil’s advocate.
“Throughout it all, Shane was like, ‘Oh, I’ll be fine,” Paige said. “And I was like, ‘Well, I kind of see it from the other side.’”
Fulton Fortner was on the other side of the world when he first heard the news of Shane’s accident.
At home in Jakarta, Indonesia, Fulton, took in the news about his older brother’s crash all at once.
All he knew at that time was that the accident was bad. Really bad.
“Honestly, at that time, it was not a lot of thoughts so much as this overbearing sensation of hopelessness and separation (from) being that far away when something happens,” said Fulton, who is about a year younger than Shane.
In order to visit Shane, Fulton and his wife, Kelly, had to jump through a lot of red tape. They knew they needed to be in Colorado, but in the age of COVID-19, international travel is not that simple.
While still in Jakarta, Fulton started a GoFundMe page to raise money for the expenses surrounding Shane’s extensive medical care. In that time, his worry subsided a bit, as he learned that his brother’s burns were not as critical as initially thought.
“That helped a little bit, it took some of that frantic sensation of ‘get home before he dies and I don’t get to say goodbye,’” Fulton said.
Traveling against the time change, he had “the longest Thursday” of his life to think about his brother and worry about the worst case scenarios. Despite leaving Indonesia at about 6 a.m., Fulton and Kelly arrived in Denver at about 6 p.m. that same day, after more than 20 hours of travel.
When he finally saw his brother in person, Shane was still in rough shape. Some of the initial swelling had gone down, but he was still hooked up to all kinds of medical devices and hardly coherent.
Shane’s right hand was more severely burned than his left, so Fulton said he developed a system where he could communicate with his brother during his few lucid moments. A finger squeeze meant “yes,” and Fulton said that was the only communication they had during those early days.
Eventually, Shane underwent a tracheostomy and began to slowly regain his voice.
With his voice coming back and his state of consciousness returning after about three weeks of sedation, Shane proved to his family that he hadn’t lost who he is in the accident.
“He’s a true original, I’ll give him that,” Fulton said. “He’s the most stubborn person so that’s obviously a huge advantage now.”
Fulton returned to Indonesia in August, with his brother in significantly better shape than when he first arrived. Just as his life abroad for the past few years has given him a changed perspective on life, Shane’s accident gave him a renewed outlook on family and friends back home.
“Since I’ve been back (in Indonesia), I’ve been in touch with people who I wish I had kept up with more,” he said. “It drives a real sense of gratitude for the people you do have.”
The ongoing and so far successful recovery, as long as it may have taken, would not have been possible without the help of strangers who swooped in and saved Shane’s life the moment of the crash.
At least three civilians, along with the deputy who serendipitously witnessed the accident in real time, helped Shane’s dad, Bill, cut him free from his seat belt and pull him away from truck that was engulfed in flames.
Some of those strangers reached out and made themselves known to the Fortners. But Shane said his anonymous saviors would like to remain that way.
Still, Shane and the Fortners reiterated their gratitude to the strangers who helped, the deputy who stepped up at a critical moment and the community that fosters that kind of selfless ethos.
He’s already thanked some of those bystanders first hand, but Shane still wants to make good via barstools and cold brews with the deputy who initiated the rescue efforts.
“I would actually like to get a hold of that gentleman and offer to buy him a nice, cold beer to help kind of brush off a little of that heat off him,” Shane said. “Any other parties involved that had a grand old time getting me in and out of there, it’s a heartfelt thank you.”
He was discharged Friday, but the rest of his recovery is expected to last for about a year. In the meantime, he has compared his appearance to the cartoon villain Skeletor, or the masked recluse from Phantom of the Opera.
And, just as with every other leg of his recovery, he does not care.
“Honestly, I don’t give a f— about how I look,” Shane said.
“I have a good wife, I have an amazing family that stood by me through all this. Probably a more traumatic experience for them than me,” he added. “And all the people that I love and care about will always know and remember what I used to look like, but they’ll also know and remember that I’m still the same man. I just look a little different. I still work the same, I still care the same, I still take care of everybody the same.
“That’s just who I am. My looks don’t matter to me. I’m not here to win Mr. America or something. Never was, never will be.”
With his newly gained freedom, Shane hopes to get back to working soon. He and Paige will reunite with their 11-month-old son, Ranger, whom they haven’t seen in over a month, too.
Despite Shane’s bullishness on his own survival odds, Fulton sees just how close to death his brother was, especially if that crash happened at any other time in any other place but Gillette.
Fulton is grateful “that if something like this had to happen, it happened in small town America, in a place like Gillette or in Campbell County. A place where people stop when they see someone in trouble. The deputy and all those people that just, without a second thought, piled out and ran toward that fireball to pull him out there. Because I would have been going to a funeral and not a burn ward.
“I wouldn’t have been checking on my brother, I’d have been burying my brother. So if this had to happen, I’m glad it happened there.”