DENVER — "So, who's Kory?"
Lee Stevens, 70, stood in the doorway of a room in St. Anthony's Hospital, leaning heavily on a cane, his upper body wrapped in a brace and his left forearm in a cast. He quickly scanned the room for his answer before his eyes settled on a man in a neon orange shirt. Kory McMahon walked over to him and they embraced. Stevens closed his eyes.
The initial time they met was a very different picture.
When they first came face to face about three weeks prior, Stevens was partly hanging out of his pickup truck, which had just careened down a massive embankment off Interstate 70, and McMahon, having put on all the winter gear in his tow truck and scrambled down the embankment, was desperate to help.
It was just a few days after the start of the new year — Jan. 5 — and Stevens was homebound for Erie, climbing up I-70 from Silverthorne toward the Eisenhower Tunnel. For the past 21 months, he had commuted every Monday morning to the Twin Lakes area for a management job. And every Friday night, he drove back in his 1991 Ford F-250. He estimated that within the past two years, he drove the route 80 times.
Stevens bought the truck in 1993, moved to Colorado the next year and has treated it like treasure ever since. Six years ago, the whole body was redone, Stevens said.
“That truck — I depend on it for my life, my work," he said.
He was riding in that truck when, around 7 p.m., he lost control and crashed through a guard rail near milemarker 211 of I-70, halfway between the Silverthorne and the tunnel.
Driver heading up to Eisenhower Tunnel crashes down 1,000-foot embankment
Stevens doesn't remember the crash. But based on stories he has heard, he was hanging partway out of the truck when McMahon scrambled down to him.
"Fourteen broken ribs, seven cracked vertebrae. Cracked sternum. Broken left arm. Three fractures in my right scapular. One in my collar bone," Stevens listed off. "And I think there was a bunch of little fractures in the vertebrae that didn’t even count. I’m kind of beat up."
By means he does not understand, he escaped without internal injuries.
“And I honestly,” he said, pausing and shaking his head. He restarted, his voice quivering: “I don’t know how those guys got me out."
But McMahon does.
The heavy tow truck operator had been looping up and down I-70 around the Eisenhower Tunnel that night as heavy snow fell in the mountains, looking for drivers in need of help. As he made his way down the interstate toward Silverthorne, he glanced at the eastbound lanes.
“I saw this truck — all of a sudden, it lost control and shot over across the lanes," McMahon said. "And, at the time, it was still early in the season, so the snow had just banked up right to the guardrail. So, his truck hit the guardrail like a ramp. And the front end came over and it kind of hung over for a minute. I’m just thinking, 'Come on, just hold onto that guardrail.'"
To his horror, the truck slowly tipped forward and disappeared from view. McMahon saw nobody else on the road. He knew of a turnaround point in the highway nearby — which snowplow drivers and law enforcement use — and rushed farther down the road. Sure enough, some plow drivers were there and McMahon told them what he saw so they could radio for help while he went back to find the truck.
As he neared where the truck crashed into the guardrail, he scoured the newly fallen snow for tire tracks that veered off the road. They were barely there, but he spotted them. He pulled over and looked down the embankment, spotting the car on its side an estimated 350 feet down.
“I’m hollering down there, seeing if anybody would respond back. And I didn’t hear anything," he remembered.
Thinking the worst, McMahon exchanged numbers with a snowplow driver so he could quickly relay the driver's condition to rescuers. He then threw on as many layers as he could grab — snowpants, beanie, jacket, gloves — and began to scoot down the steep slope.
“I get to the bottom and I’m expecting to see the worst," he said. "I’m expecting to find dead bodies or something. As I got closer to the truck, I heard a faint voice saying, ‘Help me.’ And that was a big relief, to come around the corner and see somebody still alive — somebody still fighting for their life.”
He called the snowplow driver above him and shortly afterward, a rescue team arrived. The conditions proved plenty of challenges, including four-foot snow drifts and a complex pulley system, but Stevens was lifted to safety and then brought to a hospital, where doctors found his core temperature had dropped to 92 degrees.
As first responders left the scene, Stevens returned to his tow truck.
“I’ve been in situations where somebody had gotten hurt in a vehicle and usually you just never know afterward (how it turns out)," he said. "It’s word of mouth or sometimes you might hear from one of the responders who was on site. But I didn’t know what happened to him. I was rooting for him, though, for sure.”
Roughly one week later, McMahon learned that Stevens wanted to meet him.
Their reunion Monday afternoon at the hospital was heavy with emotion and gratitude. Stevens' trusty truck may be totaled, but he had something else — somebody else — to rely on that night.
“You can get into all kinds of faith and all kinds of reasons, but ultimately, that stuff is just pure dumb luck," Stevens said. "I should be dead, not just injured. I should be dead. And that’s on Kory. What he did was above and beyond. I would not have survived."
The two spoke for about 20 minutes, reflecting on that night, how the rescue unfolded and Stevens' recovery.
“That was so far beyond your job description," he told McMahon, thanking him multiple times over.
"I was there for a reason," McMahon said quietly.
They briefly shared stories of family, their favorite pastimes, Stevens' truck and more.
Afterward, McMahon was the first to sign Stevens' cast: "Cowboy Kory."
Stevens is now preparing to leave the hospital on Tuesday and finally go home with his family — something that was never guaranteed when his truck left the interstate that evening. He is almost certain he would have died in the ravine that night, and never been found, had it not been for Kory.
“He’s a fighter. That’s why he’s here today. He’s not a quitter," McMahon said, brushing off the praise. "Everybody should try to help a little bit to make this world better. That’s what we’re here for — to help each other out."