PORTAGE LA PRAIRIE, Man. — Without warning, the old gas powered D19 rotated around its rear axle and back flipped. It had no rollover protection so Roy Vust was pinned between the tractor and mower at his farm in southern Manitoba.
Then the fuel tank erupted like a volcano, engulfing man and machine in flames.
It happened on a hot July evening when gasoline vaporizes instantly and burns with a ferocity while sucking in fresh oxygen to intensify the inferno. The instant he went over, the then 58-year-old farmer knew he was in trouble but he didn’t anticipate the fire.
Re-telling the accident story from 2001 is no longer a problem for Vust, who hopes it will prevent another farmer from having a similar accident. Some details are clearer than others.
“I was mowing ditches after supper. I got to the end where it meets the rail line, so of course I had to turn around,” said Vust.
“When the front wheels got up a little bit, I remember stopping with my foot on the clutch and turning around to see exactly where I was going to back up.
“All of a sudden, everything went upside down. The tractor was on top of me and my left leg was pinned under the transmission tunnel.”
He figures his foot slipped off the clutch pedal while the cabless D19 was still in gear. Once what had happened began to sink in, he recalled thinking how lucky he was to be alive. The only problem was the left leg pinned beneath the tractor.
Like most small utility tractors of the 1960s, the Chalmers has the gas tank mounted higher than the engine, just in front of the steering wheel. At the time, Vust gave no thought to the gas tank.
“I thought I’d better just stay calm and wait there until somebody came along. I had a good feeling that it was a miracle I was alive.
“Then whoof. Just like that, the gasoline ignited and I was completely engulfed in flames.
“The Good Lord must have lifted me out of there somehow. I don’t have any memory of what happened, but somehow my leg must have been pulled loose from the tractor and I was able to stumble away. I don’t remember any of it, but that was the second miracle within one minute.”
Once away from the burning tractor, Vust said he felt hot all over. He realized his gasoline saturated clothes were on fire.
He dropped to the ground, rolling around trying to put out the flame but the tinder dry grass didn’t help matters. After finally extinguishing the flames, he headed down the road toward home.
“Luckily, a neighbouring farmer a third of a mile across the field heard me hollering and saw what had occurred and he rushed over,” he said.
Also fortunate for Vust was the fact his farm was only a 10-minute drive to the Portage hospital. That evening, he was transferred to Winnipeg’s Health Sciences Centre with second and third degree burns to 50 percent of his upper body.
“On the ambulance ride to Winnipeg, I looked at my hands and I could see my burned skin just loose, hanging there,” said Vust, who would spend three months receiving skin grafts.
When he finally returned to the farm that fall, he replaced the D19 with a tractor that had a ROP certified cab.
“I was dumb to mow ditches without a rollover bar. No excuse for that. With ROP and a seat belt, I could have scrambled out of there immediately.
“I had lots of steel in the shop. I could have easily built one. And my family owned the Chalmers dealership, so I could have easily bought a factory rollover bar.
“But I had that carefree attitude so many farmers still have today. We have a silly teenage attitude. Nothing’s going to happen to me. It might happen to the next guy, but I’m too smart to get hurt.”
Vust farmed accident-free for another five years before retiring.
Today, he dedicates much of his time to serving as chair of Manitoba Farmers with Disabilities.
He said farm accident statistics are alarming.
“I think more young guys are taking this seriously. But the stats on farm accidents aren’t declining as fast as the farm population declines.
“We’ve all got 31.5 million seconds every year. You can afford to take a few of those seconds every day to make sure you’re farming safely.”