GILLETTE, Wyo. >> It started one evening late March.
Ken Stromberg doesn’t remember the exact time, but he remembers that the sun was descending into the horizon.
He also doesn’t recall exactly how many people — 20, 30, maybe 50 — were in the backyard at his home in western Gillette trying to rescue his 12-year-old son, Seth, from under a 1-ton boulder.
What he does remember is thinking that if something went wrong that, “There’s enough people, we’re picking this up right now.”
His three oldest kids were outside playing in the backyard with their cousins that evening, but only for half an hour, he told them. They had school the next day.
His youngest child, 1-year-old Jase, had just woken up from a nap. Ken Stromberg was trying to calm him down when he heard his kids screaming. Seth Stromberg was stuck underneath a rock.
In that moment, Ken Stromberg didn’t think much of it. The rock pile had always seemed stable.
“I just figured maybe one of the rocks slid down, pinched his leg or something,” he said.
The boulder shifted
Seth Stromberg had been jumping on the trampoline with his sisters and cousins while throwing a tennis ball to the dogs. One throw landed the ball in a small tunnel underneath a large formation of landscaping boulders next to the trampoline.
Seth Stromberg crawled in to get the ball while one of his cousins was walking on top of the pile.
That’s when it happened.
One of the large boulders, estimated to weigh about a ton, shifted and trapped Seth underneath it and the rest of the pile.
“It fell on me and it started to slide down because the mud was wet, so it pushed on my head,” Seth Stromberg said. “If I tried to move, it hurt really bad.”
Then the screaming started. Ken Stromberg ran into the backyard and saw Seth, his head sandwiched between the dirt and the boulder, trapped but not yet crushed.
Seth’s 9-year-old sister, Kaydence Stromberg, said she wasn’t worried. After all, Dad was there. “I thought (the rock) was so light that my dad could pick it up,” she said.
Ken tried using a weight bar to pry the boulder off of his son, but it wouldn’t budge. It did, however, help relieve some of the pressure off of Seth Stromberg’s head, so Ken Stromberg held it there until help arrived.
“I didn’t want to believe that I was going to die, but I knew it was a possibility,” Seth Stromberg said afterward, reflecting on the ordeal.
At the time, he was more apologetic than scared.
“He kept telling me, ‘Sorry, just get me out of here, I’m sorry,’” Ken Stromberg said. “I told him, ‘I’m sorry I can’t get you out.’”
Officer Ryan Mussell, a K-9 handler with the Gillette Police Department, was one of the first emergency responders to arrive, but said there wasn’t much he could do before the fire department could get there.
So he started talking to Seth Stromberg. He never left the boy’s side and focused on keeping him calm. While trapped, Seth Stromberg wasn’t seriously hurt. Not further disturbing what had been shown to be an unstable pile of boulders became the priority. One little shift could crush him.
Mussell said he tried to think of what he would want someone to say to him if he were in the boy’s place.
The two talked about school, family, sports — anything to keep Seth Stromberg’s mind off of the situation. Mussell admitted he was nervous, but did his best to not let that show, because anxiety and worry can be contagious.
The rescue was a group effort between the Campbell County Fire Department, the Campbell County Sheriff’s Office, the Gillette Police Department and Campbell County Health Emergency Services. It took about 40 minutes to an hour to come up with and execute a solution that would extricate Seth Stromberg unharmed.
Fire Capt. Bryan Borgialli led the effort, and said there wasn’t “a cookie-cutter way” to carry out the rescue.
Ken Stromberg compared it to surgery, where one wrong move could prove to be deadly.
“Or Jenga,” added Seth Stromberg. “I thought I’d be OK if they made the right moves. But if they did one thing wrong, then .”
As the sky grew darker with the oncoming nightfall, Borgialli and his crew considered and dismissed several plans before deciding on one they believed would work. Even then, the plan was constantly evolving.
They used air chisels, chains, air bags, jacks and even the Jaws of Life.
In the end, the key piece of equipment was a come-along, a winch with a ratchet. The crew tied two 3-ton come-alongs with chains to a pair of fence posts. They also braced the boulder with wedge tools to make sure it didn’t slide.
The boulder was lifted about an inch or two, which is all it took. Using his hands, Mussell dug underneath Seth Stromberg’s head to give him a little more room, and the boy slid out with nothing but a goose-egg-sized bruise on the left side of his head.
“You know how you lay down for a while and you’re lazy and then you wake up and you stand up and you’re all dizzy?” Seth Stromberg said. “That’s how I felt.”
“It was probably one of the happiest moments I’ve had on this job,” said Mussell, who’s been with the police department for six years. “I went over, gave him a pat on the back and told him he’d have a story to tell his friends the next day.”
The fire department’s rescue truck had driven into the backyard so that the crew had quick access to the tools they needed. It caused slight damage, knocking over a satellite dish and running over a gutter.
Ken Stromberg said the fire department even offered to pay for the damages.
“They’re not paying for anything,” he said. “I’ll pay for it out of my own pocket. They’ve done enough. They did tremendous work for us.”
Since that March evening, life has changed for the Stromberg family.
“I don’t like playing out here anymore,” said Kaydence Stromberg, pointing out that even the dogs are afraid of that area now.
“We told them not to come back here and climb underneath those rocks,” Ken Stromberg said.
“No, Dad, you will get stuck!” shouted 4-year-old Halle Stromberg, worried that her dad would find himself in the same position as her brother.
And the family, which is renting the house, is looking for a new home.
“It just doesn’t feel right anymore,” Ken Stromberg said. “We’re going to get out of here. My wife can’t look at the backyard without crying.”
Positive change has come out of the scare as well. Seth Stromberg thinks things through a little more before doing them, and the family has attended church every Sunday since.
“This just tells you how much God has power in his hands,” Ken Stromberg said. “If he were to let go a little bit, it’s going to be a bad deal.”
He hopes that others also can learn from Seth Stromberg’s near-death experience.
“The landscapers and rocks and everything, the way they do it, it makes no sense to me,” he said.
Decorating a lawn is never worth more than a life, and Ken Stromberg admits that “you never think about the freak accidents” until they happen. If anything, he said he hopes parents will use caution with their kids when around big rocks.
He also said he hadn’t been one for playing with the kids when he came home after a long day of work. That’s also changed.
“I spend more time with my family, less time in the garage,” he said, adding that night “was a shock for me, but it’ll make me a better dad. We’ve been going for walks. If they wanna go swimming, I’ll go with them. I don’t want to miss that chance.”
A happy ending
Campbell County Health paramedics checked Seth Stromberg out at the scene. After they cleared him, he joined his sister and cousins, who were eating ice cream.
A typical 12-year-old boy, he was feeling a little hungry.
“He ate the whole box of ice cream,” Kaydence Stromberg said.
As Seth Stromberg scooped ice cream straight out of the tub and into his mouth, it was close to 9 p.m. He’d missed the sunset, but there would be another one tomorrow.