Sampson Parker stood Monday in what had been a cornfield, calm and relaxed and smiling. Behind him was the rusty old corn picker that almost took his life, but settled for his right arm.
The machine didn’t take the arm outright. It just grabbed hold of it and wouldn’t let go. It was only when sparks from the machine set the stubble-strewn field on fire and Parker faced the prospect of being burned alive that he did the only thing he could to save his life.
He cut off his own arm with a pocketknife.
That was on Sept. 11, but Parker acted as if it had been a lifetime ago during an appearance Monday on TODAY.
“I’m doing great,” he told co-host Matt Lauer in a soft, South Carolina drawl. “Doing real good.”
Lauer found it amazing that Parker hadn’t destroyed the machine that nearly killed him, but he said he’d made peace with the machine and the ordeal it put him through.
“One Sunday morning, I came out here before going to church, said a little prayer, made everything good with God,” he explained. “It doesn’t bother me a bit.”
Parker had been harvesting corn that day when some stalks got stuck in a set of rollers that shuck the cut corn. He reached in the still-running machine to pull the stalks out, and the rollers grabbed first his glove and then his hand.
He tried yelling for help, but there was no one near the isolated field in Kershaw County, S.C. So for more than an hour, he tried to pull his hand free, only to have it pulled ever further into the machinery.
He was able to reach an iron bar and jam it into a chain-and-sprocket that drove the rollers, and, with his fingers growing numb, he pulled out a small pocketknife and started to cut his own fingers off to free himself.
Before he could do that, the sprocket grinding against the rod he’d jammed in it threw off sparks that set the ground litter on fire. That’s when Parker knew he had to cut the arm off or die right there.
“My skin was melting,” he told a local NBC affiliate. “It was dripping off my arm like melting plastic."
“I told myself, I’m not going to die here,” he told Lauer. “I kept fighting, kept praying.”
He said he felt little when he was cutting through his own flesh. “Really, the only pain that I felt was when I felt the nerves ... I could feel the nerves as I was cutting my arm off there,” he said in a matter-of-fact tone, as if it weren’t anything all that special. He even credits the fire with keeping him from passing out from the shock of cutting through his arm.
“If it hadn’t been for the fire, I would have lost my life,” he said.
When he got down to the bone, he dropped onto the ground, using the force of his own weight to break the bone and free him from the machine. As he got up, a tire exploded on the corn picker, and the force of it threw him back about five feet and free of the flames.
“When I did get loose, I jumped up running, blood spurting from my arm,” Parker said.
Close call with deathInjured as he was, he got in his pickup truck, started it, and drove out to the highway, where he parked and tried to wave down passing traffic to help, but nobody stopped. Finally, he pulled his truck into the middle of the road to force a car to stop, but even then motorists drove onto the shoulder to get around him.
Finally, Doug Spinks drove up and stopped. A first-responder used to dealing with emergencies, Spinks said he was taken aback when Parker got out of his truck and the extent of his injuries became apparent.
Spinks stopped the bleeding and called for help, but, he told Lauer, he was afraid that his efforts weren’t going to be enough to save Parker’s life.
“His skin was very gray, which shows a large loss of blood,” said Spinks, standing in the cornfield next to Parker. “I was very, very scared that I wasn’t going to be able to save him.”
But Parker wasn’t going to give in, not after all he’d done to save his own life. He held on while a rescue helicopter was called in to take him to a hospital. He spent three weeks in a burn center before going home, where his wife and three children, ages 31, 26 and 18, nursed him back to health.
He eased himself back into his job supervising an $80-million highway construction project, working half days at first until going back full-time last week. He’s just been fitted for a prosthetic arm that he expects to get by the end of the year.
While he was recuperating, about 25 of his neighbors got together to finish harvesting his corn, which he sells as bait to local deer hunters.
He told NBC that when he got out of the hospital and returned home, some 80 people welcomed him back.
“It really wasn't the corn picker’s fault, it was my fault,” he told NBC. “It’s just a mistake I made by what I did. I stuck my hand where I shouldn't.”
When he was done telling his story, Lauer wished him all the best in his recovery. Parker smiled, accepted the good wishes and returned one of his own: “Y’all have a good day.”