Do you really need to wear a hard hat at your worksite? Forty-five years ago Gary Govanus was wearing a hard hat that, he says, saved his life. Read his incredible story below
By Gary Govanus
My incident occurs on a cold, blustery March night in Chicago in the ‘70s. When I say “cold”, it was cold the way only Chicago can be cold, with a cutting wind blowing off the lake. I remember this because it probably helped save me from greater injury. This occurred just a few weeks after my 21st birthday.
I was working the night shift for Marriot In-Flight Services at Chicago’s O’Hare Field. I don’t remember the exact job title. I think it was something all-encompassing like Helper. The position entailed putting food on airplanes and taking dirty dishes off the airplanes. We also restocked supplies like soda, coffee, and alcoholic beverages. My job as Helper was to jump out of the truck as it was pulling up to an airplane and guide it in position so that it could safely raise the truck bed up to the door of the plane. Once that was accomplished, the driver and I would climb into the bed, raise the bed, knock on a door, and wait for someone to open it. When the door was opened, we would secure it and then slide a portion of the truck out until it touched the airplane, making for a safe entry and egress.
In March of 1971, the 747 aircraft were brand new. At the time I was working for Marriott, I think there were only two that regularly serviced O’Hare. Because of the radically new airframe, Marriott had some trucks specially made to service the 747, and there were many new safety regulations put in place. One of the safety regulations said if, for whatever reason, the wing flaps on the plane were extended, we were not allowed to approach the aircraft or raise the truck bed.
On the night of my accident, the last aircraft we had to clean was the Eastern 747. It was well after midnight when my partner and I made our way onto the tarmac for our last run. When we got to the plane, I jumped out and immediately climbed back in. The flaps were extended. The driver climbed out, talked to the ground crew and found there was no one who could remedy the situation, and besides, for whatever reason, there was a problem with the electrical system between the ground and the plane and they could not get the electrical power to make it happen. My partner made the decision to head back to the shop and tell them we would not be able to clean the plane.
Once we returned, we were told the plane was due to fly out with a full load as the sun was coming up, and the only carriers that would fit the 747 galley and hold all the food for all those people were still on that plane. The carriers had to come off. We were tasked with making that happen.
When we got out of the plane, we examined our options. We could manually move the carriers down a steep flight of stairs, but the carriers were open ended. We would end up having garbage blown all of the tarmac, and that was not an option. The front doors were used for the Jetway, so they were out. The middle doors were blocked because of the flaps, so they were unavailable. That left the doors at the rear of the plane. We put the truck in place, my partner raised the bed, and I climbed the staircase, walked through the plane, and opened the back door. Because of the height of the door and the curvature of the airframe, the ramp that usually nestled up against the side of the plane at door level was now about two feet lower than the door and there was a three-foot gap between the plane and the truck. Not insurmountable, certainly not for my 6-foot-plus partner. For 5′10″ Gary, it presented an obstacle that required thought and planning to get into and out of the plane.
It was cold and miserable. It was late. Later than late. We were now well past our usual quitting time. To make matters worse, my fiancée had arrived from Iowa that night and was waiting for me. I hadn’t seen her in six weeks, and so I was anxious to get home. In short, on the last trip into the plane, I was thinking about going home and not getting into the airplane. As I took that final step to get into the aircraft, I missed. I may not remember everything from that night, but the sight of watching the open door go by as I started my plunge is forever ingrained. I knew that I was about to find out if it was my time to die.
Someone, a lawyer or doctor, estimated I fell about 30 feet to the cement tarmac. I was wearing my heavy winter coat, gloves and my yellow hard hat. I was blessed. I landed on my butt. When I hit the ground, I instinctively tried to break the fall with my hands. Fortunately, I had my elbows bent. My legs were also extended in front of me. I didn’t do this on purpose; it is the way I landed. When I hit the ground, I discovered the body does not bounce, but Newton was right: an object that is in motion will stay in motion unless acted on by an outside force. In this case, the outside force was the taxiway at O’Hare field. There were parts, like my head, that remained in motion after the rest of me stopped. It caromed off the taxiway. Fortunately, my hard hat had remained firmly in place on my head. Until it hit the concrete.
I have no idea where the hard hat ended up. I have no idea the condition it was in after absorbing that blow. All I know is my head was fine. No bumps, bruises, abrasions, whatever, all because of that hard hat. Had I not been wearing that hat, two things are certain:
- Someone would have had a very difficult and disgusting job of cleaning up the remains of my brains from the taxiway.
- I would not be writing this story.
I was wearing a hard hat and that heavy jacket. The hard hat kept me alive. The jacket prevented further injury to my shoulders and arms.
I came away with two compressed vertebrae and two broken wrists. I was blessed!
It has been about 45 years since that accident. Every day I am grateful I am alive and I can walk. Thank you to the designer and manufacturer of that hard hat!
The moral of the story: Wear the hard hat! The life you save will be your own.
Gary has moved on from cleaning airplanes and most recently founded mg2t.com (www.mg2t.com), a content provider for web sites and blogs, based in Orlando Florida. Special thanks to Gary for letting us share his story.
Bullard was founded in 1898 by Edward Dickinson Bullard. Edward Bullard’s son, E.W. Bullard, invented the first modern day hard hat in 1919 for miners to use as protective headgear. The invention of the hard hat was the beginning of Bullard’s prominence as an industry leader in head protection. Today, Bullard manufactures a series of hard hats that have revolutionized the industry with superior performance, unmatched quality, durability, and added comfort.