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'Mountain Man' reached peak of volunteer heroism

Imagine your car spins out on a frigid night along the steep, winding stretch of Highway 6 between Banks and Tillamook, landing on its top in a ditch with you injured and trapped inside.

The nearest emergency medical crew is a half-hour to an hour away, depending on conditions. It will take crews another half hour (or more) to extract and stabilize you, and it’s a very long ambulance ride to the nearest hospital.

That scenario is scary even today, with highly trained Forest Grove Fire & Rescue emergency medical technicians ready to respond the moment the first cell phone call comes in.

Now imagine how scary this would have been more than 40 years ago, when the fire department didn’t have trained medical personnel, cell phones didn’t exist and private ambulance service was poorly staffed and underfunded.The Bilderbacks

Paramedic Mark Watts was blunt in a 1980 newspaper interview about that desolate stretch of the Wilson River Highway: “Response time in certain cases is not compatible with living.”

But in the early 1970s, Gerald Condon lived out there, near the community of Glenwood. He was all too familiar with the carnage in the rugged mountains around his home. Car accidents, to be sure, but also hunting mishaps, logging injuries, and all-terrain-vehicle crashes often resulted in very serious injuries.

Citizens Band radios were a nationwide fad at the time, and Jerry Condon’s CB handle was “Mountain Man.” He listened helplessly as the truckers, loggers and police who drove Highway 6 came across terrible accidents and frantically called for help, then endured the agonizing wait for help to arrive.

In 1972, when Condon’s granddaughter died in an accident while playing on construction equipment near his home, Condon endured that agonizing wait himself, and decided he had seen enough.

Condon was not wealthy. He worked part-time jobs to make a living. But he told friends, neighbors and anyone else who would listen about his dream of creating an all-volunteer rescue and first-aid service. Instead of listening helplessly to emergency CB calls, he and his volunteers would spring into action, administering aid and comfort until an ambulance could arrive from far-off Forest Grove.

While Condon and about a dozen others took emergency-medical-technician training, a community effort grew. Motorcycle clubs, whose members often were victims of wrecks on that highway, helped raise the money to buy a used panel van. Doherty Ford donated a paint job, and the private Grove Ambulance Company donated first aid supplies. Soon almost every police officer or trucker in the area knew to call Mountain Man when help was needed, any time of day or night, 365 days a year. For the next nine years, he or his crew always responded.

January 1982 brought an ice storm, and with it a week of crash after crash on the treacherous highway. Condon worked almost without a break that week, and was exhausted when it was over. When he didn’t feel better, he went to the doctor and got devastating news. He had pancreatic cancer.

An old News-Times article captures Gerald Condon in his efforts to help others along the deadly Wilson River Highway.Now the community went to work again, this time to raise money for Mountain Man’s staggering medical bills, for which he had no insurance. Businesses put out donation jars, sheriff deputies passed the hat. Everyone did what they could, but on March 30, Gerald “Mountain Man” Condon succumbed to the cancer. Police officers and firefighters in their dress uniforms filled the chapel for the funeral of a man who served his community for years, without pay and without a uniform of his own.

Left in debt from his medical bills and without Mountain Man’s larger-than-life personality, Condon’s family and friends were unable to sustain the rescue service. About a year later, Paramedic Mark Watts organized some of the other veteran volunteers and created a not-for-profit organization called Evergreen Medical Emergency Response Group Inc., or EMERGI.

The community raised enough money to keep EMERGI running into the early 1990s, but by then the burdens and red tape associated with emergency responses were just too much. Insurance premiums were soaring and private ambulance companies had pushed through tough new state licensing standards, designed in part to stifle competition from volunteer responders.

Gerald “Mountain Man” Condon was of a different era, when lives were saved by a small volunteer outfit that was low on bureaucracy and high on heart. That era is all but forgotten, except by some in the public safety community — and the families of those whose lives Condon helped save.

A simple message is etched on Mountain Man’s headstone at Mountain View Cemetery: “Be a friend.”

“Now &Then” runs every other week. The Bilderbacks research and write books about western Washington County history. Much of this column is excerpted from their book, “Fire in a Small Town.” More excerpts and information are available at kenbilderback.com.

FGF&R dials down ‘No-man’s land’ response

Starting March 1, Forest Grove Fire & Rescue stopped responding to “unknown injury” accidents along Highway 6 if they are outside the Forest Grove Rural Fire Protection District, which ends just past Aagard Road, said FGF&R Fire Marshal Dave Nemeyer.

“Beyond that, it’s kind of a no-man’s land between here and Tillamook,” Nemeyer said.

“Unknown injury” usually means a driver has passed a car off the road in a ditch and called it in to 911 but didn’t stop to check whether anyone needed help, Nemeyer said.

With cell phone service spotty out there, someone might not be able to call in an accident until miles later, said Nemeyer. Or sometimes “people aren’t sure where they are” when they call, leading rescue crews to drive far past the district border in search of the wreck.

Nemeyer remembers going deep into Tillamook County for one call, as far as the south fork of the Wilson River, before finding the accident that had been called in.

With calls for service going up each year, FGF&R doesn’t have enough resources to devote to such time-consuming trips, Nemeyer said.

In addition, “unknown injury” calls rarely turn out to be serious, he said.

Oregon State Police and the Washington or Tillamook county sheriffs will continue responding to such calls, as they do now, and will call in medical support if needed.

FGF&R, meanwhile, will still respond to “injury” accidents along that stretch and will call in backup help as needed.

— Jill Rehkopf Smith



Local Weather

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Forest Grove

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  • 16 Sep 2014

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