Accidental shooting doesn't fracture couple's future

Posted: Thursday, January 17, 2002

JUNEAU (AP) -- Newlywed Tiffany Stocks heard the whip-smack of the bullet leaving the muzzle of her rifle. She would have caught it mid-air if she could have before it hit its unintended target: her husband, Michael.

''I'd seen what a bullet does to a deer,'' said the 20-year-old Jan. 8. ''The explosion tears it all apart. And that's what it did to his (right) leg.''

She said to this day she doesn't know exactly what happened the morning of Nov. 19. She remembered taking the safety off the rifle. She said she'd remember it as the ''stupidest thing I ever did.''

The shooting resulted in her husband losing his leg and facing expensive medical and rehabilitative costs. The couple recounted their drama earlier this month at a friend's house in Juneau.

She remembered her husband's warnings about bears in the area and his order to shoot one if it came for them. He was 30 feet in front of her gutting a deer she shot with her bow. Taking the rifle out of its holster on her shoulder. A wayward branch, the wind, maybe the binoculars around her neck, something grabbed the trigger and the gun went off.

''My first thought was keeping Tiff calm,'' said her 38-year-old husband. ''So I made a joke. I said, 'Baby, why'd you go and shoot me? You're making it awfully hard for me to carry this deer home.'''

They had been deer hunting for three weeks before the accident. In the four years since they met in a mining camp in Hoonah, they'd roughed high seas to pull in 200-pound halibut, braved treacherous hikes and battled powers-that-be to build a home they would share in Petersburg someday.

But Tiffany Stocks' husband of five months now lay in the snow in a growing pool of his blood. She grabbed his belt and quickly fashioned a tourniquet according to her husband's instructions.

''I just kept saying, 'I'm sorry. I'm so sorry baby.' I didn't mean to do it,''' she said. ''Running for the truck, all I cared about was that someone hear me. I just kept yelling into the radio, 'Can anybody hear me?' I didn't know if the radio was even working.''

Someone did hear her, a friend of theirs from the Whitestone Timber Camp in Hoonah, John Hillman. His voice came crackling over the radio with the promise of help and a helicopter to save her husband.

With his wife looking for help, Michael Stocks sat propped against a tree, waiting.

''I could hear her screaming for help,'' he said. ''I just kept grabbing snow around my leg to see how bad I was bleeding. The worse part was the ravens. They came from everywhere it seemed like.''

The ravens bring other, bigger animals he said. He thought of the bear signs he had seen earlier that morning. He looked at the dead, half-gutted deer next to him whose blood now mixed with his in the snow and whose scent was in the air.

''I thought, 'Please God, don't let me die like this. I don't want to leave Tiff. Please God, let someone hear her,''' he said. ''Then I heard John Hillman. ... I just felt so much relief.''

Another man in the area, also a friend of the Stocks, had a chain saw and began cutting down trees to make room for the helicopter to land.

Once on the helicopter, everything went black, Michael Stocks said.

Over the next few days, doctors delivered grim news to Tiffany Stocks. They would have to take her husband's right leg. There was no blood flow. Arteries had been destroyed and rerouted. If an infection developed, he would die.

''Signing those papers to have them take his leg was the hardest thing to do,'' Tiffany Stocks said. ''I didn't know if he understood what was happening. I didn't know if this was what he wanted or how it would feel for a man to have his leg taken from him to have to hobble around for the rest of his life and know that I made that decision for him.''

Once the drugs wore off, the $200,000 medical bills, expensive therapy and no prospect of work for the former timber cutter set in.

''Some days I'm devastated and can't stop crying,'' he said. ''I think, 'How am I going to work? How am I going to pay the bills? How am I going to take care of us?'

''But we just keep going. We know God is in our lives. ... I wasn't supposed to die. I have a purpose in this life and I know that now.''

Between weekly trips from Hoonah to Juneau and Seattle, the couple's savings have slowly worn away to nothing. A $900-a-month disability check offers little solace. But Tiffany Stocks has hopes of getting her husband a prosthetic leg that would allow him to walk again and have the future they planned.

''I just want him back the way he was,'' she said. ''And I know it'll all work out. It has to. We love each other too much for it not to.''

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