CLEARWATER — These days, employees of Clearwater's Solid Waste and General Services Department think of supervisor Rick Ottinger as an inspiration.
For 23 years, he's driven mammoth pieces of equipment. He became so proficient, he made lead worker on the commercial side — the first rung on the department's management ladder. He knew all the routes, could cover any position on his team.
That's what he was doing May 13, 2011, when his work day began. But it ended with a ride to the hospital in a helicopter.
Ottinger was in a truck driven by another employee, on the way to empty the commercial trash container at Jason's Deli in Clearwater. When they arrived, they saw the container enclosure was blocked by a truck.
"I said to the driver, stop here. I'll run over and get the truck moved out," Ottinger recalled. "He stopped. I got out and all of a sudden, I was underneath the tire."
The 56,000-pound truck and rolled forward and was on top of his lower left leg.
Ottinger didn't pass out. He stayed alert, yelling for the driver to pull forward. When his leg was free, he had to move or risk getting caught by the rear tires.
"I crab-crawled on the ground and heard a woman yell that she'd called 911," said Ottinger, 50. "The driver came around. He was kind of freaking out. He knew he couldn't do anything for me. I was calmer than he was and conscious the whole time."
Ottinger saw that his foot was completely turned around and the skin was gone from his leg. He was pain free, but noticed when the paramedics asked him to wiggle his toes, he saw no movement.
The first doctors who saw Ottinger gave him a 50-50 chance of regaining use of his leg. But that changed after a final MRI. They said that even after seven or eight surgeries, there would be no guarantee they could save it.
"I told them to take it," Ottinger said. "Take the leg. I figured I could adapt, or at least I hoped I could."
Ten days of hospitalization followed the below-the-knee amputation of his leg. But from the start, Ottinger's positive attitude fueled a rapid recovery. He spent three months working with physical therapists before he could be fitted for a prosthesis.
"But once I got the prosthesis, it took me about a minute to walk," he said.
Ottinger didn't talk lawsuits. He didn't complain about the situation that he said changed his life. He was just anxious to get back to work.
"Rick is inspirational," said Earl Gloster, director of Solid Waste and General Services. "When he had his accident, he didn't blame the driver. He never had a bad taste in his mouth about the city. The first thing he said to me when I visited him in the hospital was, 'What about my job?' I told him, don't worry about your job."
Not only did Ottinger return to work five months earlier than expected, he came back and worked with the employee responsible for the accident, never holding a grudge. Eventually, Ottinger even spent two weeks with the man, training him for another position.
"In the two weeks, 80 hours, we spent together, not one time did we talk about that accident," said Ottinger. "It never came up. I know he didn't do it on purpose. Stinks to be the one it happened to, but it rocked him especially hard. I've seen this identical accident happen before over the years."
Ottinger admits he had no idea how losing a leg would change his life. He can't throw a football with his son, or at least hasn't, because he can't pivot with his current prosthesis. He uses a wheelchair at night if he needs to get up, because it takes too long to attach his new leg. He also uses the chair so he can get ready for work faster in the morning.
But otherwise, he has not let losing a leg stop him.
"I have been profoundly impressed with his work ethic and compliance with regards to his prosthetic care," said licensed prosthetist Robert Dixon of Hanger Clinic. "Rick is a very self-motivated, competitive and athletic individual, which have helped him tremendously in his efforts to reach his goals."
Ottinger is frequently told he's too active, which makes him smile. He's on his third prosthetic leg in the 15 months since the accident.
He knows he is strong-willed, but credits his quick recovery to support from his wife, Jan, his daughter, Brooke, 20, his son Blake, 15, his family, friends, people at church — and especially those he works with at the city.
"The city has been wonderful to me," Ottinger said. "And the people I work with are the bomb. It's important to be surrounded by positive people. I think 90 percent of this is in your head. If you want to fall to the crisis, it will eat you up."
"Rick is such an example for the other guys," said Gloster. "We're always preaching safety, but if he sees someone not wearing protective goggles, he'll tell them how his accident happened in a split second. The message he brings is so important."
Assistant Director John Pittman agrees. "His coming back when he did was almost like a miracle. He has the x-factor. The drive Rick possesses is incredible."
Ottinger is active on the department safety committee and admits his job is dangerous, but says it comes down to respect for the work and heavy equipment used to carry out that job.
He's thankful to be back at work. He hopes to become an advocate for others going through what he has, but who might not be dealing with it as well.
"I feel blessed, because going through this, I have people who care — big time," he said. "And the city helps me with whatever I feel I need. I could have gone on disability, but that's not me. I don't need the ride. I'm more than capable of doing my job."