Shaun Lee was nearly upside down, trapped in his car at night after it rolled down an embankment deep in the remote wilderness of western Montana.
There, in the dark, he started to pray.
“I didn’t want to die,” he said.
He had left his mother’s home in Moncks Corner in pursuit of work in North Dakota, where he beat the bushes for an oil field job. Then he decided to visit relatives in Missoula, Mont.
Lee was driving in the Lolo National Forest last week when his rented Impala left the road, coming to rest against some trees with the motor still running and radio blaring. He honked the horn intermittently in an attempt to attract rescuers.
Eventually, the car battery died. It was just past midnight and he was pinned against the steering wheel. He was weak, his neck hurt, he couldn’t use his legs and he was a long, long way from home.
“It felt like my legs were a pair of balloons,” he said.
It would be more than 30 hours before he was found.
The trip had already been a rough one for Lee. He said that he wrecked his Suburban in Tennessee when someone ran him into a light pole. Two rental cars broke down. And his beloved dog and traveling companion, J. Edgar, had gone missing from a Montana Walmart parking lot.
Lee told his story Tuesday in a phone interview from the Missoula hospital where he is receiving treatment for a bruised spinal cord and fractured neck vertebrae. He said the sensation in his legs is returning.
“Right now, I’m thankful for the U.S. Forest Service,” he said.
Had it not been for a forestry worker who spotted the wrecked car 40 feet off the road, Lee might not have survived to tell about his ordeal. By the time of his rescue, Lee had been fighting thirst, hunger and exposure for 33 hours. Missoula County Emergency Services cut him out of the car and transported him to the hospital.
His father, Charles Lee of McClellanville, was relieved to hear from his son, who he thought was on his way back to South Carolina.
“I didn’t know where he was for three days. I was starting to get real worried,” Lee said.
Shaun Lee’s mother, Susan Lee, said her son will be in the hospital in Montana for at least another week.
“I think it’s a miracle that he’s OK and someone found him,” she said.
Charles Lee drove the damaged Suburban back from Tennessee to be repaired in Charleston. And it turns out J. Edgar will be coming back home, too. The missing Carolina Beagle was found in Missoula by someone who read about Shaun Lee in a story published in the local paper.
“He’s my children,” Lee said.
Lee, who grew up in St. Stephen, said he has to keep his neck immobile while it heals. He said that he is too weak to open a can of soda.
Lee said the accident happened when he was looking for a motel west of Missoula. He took a wrong exit and a few wrong turns and found himself coming down a slope on a wet dirt road at 12:15 a.m. Thursday.
“Emergency brake on, got the foot brake on,” recalled Lee. “It’s going faster and faster. Next thing I know, she flipped upside-down and boom.”
“I did say my ‘Our Fathers’ and ‘Hail Mary Full of Graces,’” Lee said.
At about 9:30 a.m. Friday , Forest Service employee Benji Hegg spotted Lee’s car and called for help.
“He sat right there outside my window and kept me level-headed,” Lee said. “He saved my life.”
Other rescuers responded and cut Lee out of the vehicle. Taylor Blakely, a member of Frenchtown Rural Fire, said responders placed Lee on a backboard and carried him up the embankment. He was then taken to the hospital.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.