Mary Ann Barbie-Rice never thought she would die when her husband hit an icy patch on Interstate 15 and their truck careened down an embankment on a snowy day in early December 2015.
“I knew we would be found. I was praying, ‘Oh please, dear Lord, stop this,’” the 67-year-old Helena woman said at a ceremony Thursday, where she and her husband Steve received Saved by the Belt awards for buckling up.
The couple were surrounded by members of the Butte-Silver Bow Fire Department as Capt. Gary Becker, Montana Highway Patrol District 3 Commander, presented them with the awards, saying they were “prime examples” of how wearing seatbelts can save lives.
Becker nominated the Rices for the honor. He was the investigating officer the day of the crash and described the conditions: heavy snow, icy roads and “wrecks everywhere.”
On Dec. 10, the Rices were en route to Helena from St. James Healthcare, where Mary Ann received an implant to monitor her heart following a stroke nearly a year ago. Their GMC pickup truck started sliding on black ice about 20 miles north of Butte.
The roadway curved left, but the truck slid straight, Steve said.
“I think he said, ‘Oh no. No, we’re going,’” Mary Ann recalled her husband saying as the truck rambled over gravel and through a fence before going airborne and landing on top of a field of boulders. The interstate was 50 to 60 feet above the crash site.
Steve opened the driver’s side door and dropped about 3 feet, losing his eye glasses and one of his hearing aids, which was later recovered by Becker.
Capt. Shane Worley of the Butte-Silver Bow County Fire Department said Steve climbed to the top of the ravine and flagged down a motorist. It was a “whiteout, blizzard conditions” when responders arrived.
The technical rope rescue was one of the most difficult Worley has seen, citing the terrain and weather conditions. Mary Ann was extricated from the truck and initially placed on a backboard. The team of seven used the rope setup and a winch to transport her in a Stokes rescue basket over boulders up to the roadway, Worley said.
The couple was taken to St. James in separate ambulances. Steve suffered a fractured lumbar vertebra, and Mary Ann’s suffered a badly bruised torso from the seatbelt and a fractured thoracic vertebra.
They were released from the hospital after four days and were each required to wear a brace for 12 weeks due to their spinal injuries. The pain lingers for both, but on Thursday they were upbeat and thankful.
Mary Ann said the outpouring from family members and the community surrounded them with care and positive wishes.
“We’re very blessed,” she added.
Of the 59 crashes the Montana Patrol has responded to as of Tuesday this year, 65 lives have been claimed, a 25 percent increase over 2015. In 33 of those accidents, 35 individuals who were killed did not wear a seatbelt.
Becker said a “significant” number of fatal crashes have occurred this year due to not wearing seatbelts. The Rices survived because they buckled up.
“There’s no doubt that they probably would have been killed had they not been wearing seatbelts just because of the dynamics of crash,” he said.