Boy hurt by cannon blast feels twice wounded
Accident in football town elicited threats, not get-well wishes
By CAROL SMITH
SNOHOMISH -- The cannon shot that ripped into Brett Karch's leg, causing a gaping combat-style wound, has also torn a hole in his hometown community of Snohomish.
Karch, whose leg was nearly amputated and who faces more than a year of physical rehabilitation with an uncertain outcome, has been the target of physical threats because of fears his injury will jeopardize the community's tradition of firing the ceremonial cannon before each high school football game and after touchdowns.
For more than 30 years, the blast of the cherry-red cannon has ignited the roars of fans whenever the home team scored in this football-proud town. With its tree-lined streets, gingerbread-trimmed Victorian houses and hills crested with historic churches, the town is devoted to its traditions, including its beloved cannon, which students in the school's metal shop built after a previous cannon gave out in the mid-1980s.
Football and the cannon were entwined, like popcorn at the movies. And football and Snohomish were even more so.
"Football is a huge part of the community," said Paula McVey, mother of a Snohomish student. "When there's a game on, you can hear it going from anywhere in town."
Shooting off the cannon was the town's salute to the game that launched many notable football careers and entertained generations.
But the shot that nearly took off Brett Karch's leg now leaves the fate of that tradition in the air, and that has upset some in the community.
According to Karch's medical records, security guards notified police after Karch received disturbing phone calls and visits from parents and students, some of whom threatened to "break his other leg" or worse, if he didn't keep quiet about the accident. Hospital staff had to move him to a secure room where they monitored visitors.
Callers and visitors told Karch they would "make sure his other leg got blown off," and that "there would be retaliation" if the family cooperated in an investigation that could end the cannon tradition, said Mary Bissel, Karch's mother. "That's when I kind of got a little upset," Karch said.
The threats also included mention the family would be "banned from the town," Bissell said. She's been warned not to talk to a lawyer, or reporters.
The allegations of threats, as well as the cause of the accident, remain under investigation. Hospital security reported the threats to the Everett Police Department, but police, who came to the hospital to interview Karch and his mother, won't release the incident report, citing the open investigation into the cause of the accident.
The tradition of firing a cannon at football games has all but disappeared in most school districts, which makes this one that much more endearing to its community.
"This one was grandfathered in," said retired Marine Corps. Col. John Mack, who heads the Marine Corps Junior Reserve Officer Training unit at Snohomish High School and is in charge of the squad that fires the cannon. "We're the only school allowed to do it."
Being on the cannon-firing squad was a source of pride for Karch, who joined the ROTC unit last year to help him toward his longtime goal of becoming a Marine. Karch, a lanky, personable 16-year-old, had hoped to do Special Forces reconnaissance work one day.
"Brett wanted to serve his country," said Bissel. "Now we're just hoping he will be able to use his leg. I never imagined this would happen on a football field."
On Oct. 6 -- the night of the Snohomish Panthers big homecoming game against rival Everett High School -- Karch prepared as usual for the firing of the cannon.
He helped roll the coffee table-sized artillery piece to the field where he and two other cadets packed the barrel with about 5 ounces of gunpowder.
With 10 seconds to go before the game, Cadet Alex Brown, 18, the officer in charge of the firing team, began the countdown.
The other cadets stood at attention except Karch, who leaned in, finger at the ready.
"Fire," Brown commanded. Karch pulled the trigger.
The boom, which normally rattled the bleachers, was louder than usual, witnesses said.
The concussion temporarily deafened Brown, who couldn't see through the smoke for several seconds. When the smoke cleared, he saw Karch lying on the ground clutching his left leg.
"I almost thought he was joking, and I going to yell at him, 'It's not funny,' " said Brown. Then he heard Karch's screams.
The cannon was blown apart. Pieces of it landed 30 feet away, some even touching down in the end zone.
"My leg went flying, and I fell on my right side," said Karch. "Kids were staggering around. I looked at my leg and felt it burning."
"Did it blow my leg off, is my leg still attached?" he recalled asking the closest cadet to him. But the deafened student couldn't hear him.
Within seconds, medics and senior officers sprinted to his side. The team of emergency medical technicians standing by in the event of a football injury rushed Karch into a waiting ambulance.
The priority on the playing field, however, was the game, which didn't stop as Karch was carried off the sidelines to an ambulance, witnesses said.
Not much can stop football in this town, where the pride runs deep. The two-time state champions have generated many notable players and coaches over the years. Dick Armstrong was known as the "winningest coach in Washington state high school football history" by the time he retired in 1994. In his 32 seasons as head coach at Snohomish, Armstrong, who died in 1999, racked up 243 wins and won or shared 16 league titles, including 13 in a row.
As play continued, Karch was taken to Providence Everett's Colby Campus, where doctors initially told his stunned mother they weren't sure they could save his leg. Karch has since undergone three surgeries to implant a titanium rod the length of his shin to replace the decimated bone and to graft skin over the shredded tissue. In February, doctors plan to graft bone from his hip into his leg to help it heal.
"My leg was in so many pieces, it was like a jigsaw puzzle," said Karch.
"If this had happened to a football player, you can be sure he would have been airlifted to Harborview," said one parent of a ROTC member, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisals.
Brown, too, was shocked and later angered by the apparent lack of concern for the seriousness of Karch's injury.
Rumors circulated almost immediately among students that Karch must have packed the cannon incorrectly, and some of the cards and comments have suggested that he deserved what happened to him.
Karch said he didn't do anything different that night, a view shared by his ROTC leader Mack, the retired Marine Corps colonel, who said the team follows military protocols for loading and firing the cannon.
Mack had the cannon X-rayed earlier this year. Fred Langer, an attorney representing the family, said those results showed a stress fracture in the metal, although it's not clear yet whether that had any bearing on the explosion.
No decision has been made yet about whether to acquire a new cannon to ensure the tradition continues, said Snohomish High School Principal Diana Plumis.
"We're certainly not getting that one back," she said. "It was obliterated."
That's what seems to worry many of those who have contacted Karch, who has gotten cards indicating the tradition of the cannon is too important to lose.
"Football wouldn't be the same without the big boom at kickoff," wrote one student in a get-well card.
The reaction of some community members has taken the family and its supporters aback.
"Snohomish is usually a pretty tight community," Brown said. "Usually when something like this happens, groups come together. But that didn't happen this time."
Since his discharge from the hospital on Oct. 23, Karch has had only three visitors -- two of them Mack and Brown. And despite invitations to school friends, not a single person other than family attended his 16th birthday celebration in November, Bissell said.
Bissel suspects some of the reaction may be because she retained a lawyer to help her understand legal forms the school district asked her to sign after the accident. She has not filed any legal claims against the school or the district. According to Langer, the school district has been cooperative and has said it plans to establish a fund to pay for Karch's medical expenses.
What Bissel wants for her son, though, is the emotional support of the community they've lived in for a decade.
On a recent school day afternoon, Karch, who has not been able to attend regular classes since the accident, rode past his old school in a cabulance on his way to an Everett clinic for a weekly changing of the thick dressings that wrap his wounds. Kids had spilled out of the school, and he tried to wave to Brown, who drove by.
Karch said later he wondered whether the kids milling around even realized that he was in the ambulance van going by.
The persistent hostility, and loss of friendships, make him sad, but he's trying not to dwell on it.
He's working hard during weekly physical and occupational therapy sessions, hoping to regain enough function to qualify for the military.
McVey has tried rallying support for Karch's family by raising money for dinners. Her initial attempts raised $200, nearly all of it coming from schools other than Karch's own.
The lack of response still puzzles her.
"You have a kid here who's lost part of his leg, who may always have a rod in it," she said. "Where's the compassion? How would these guys feel if it were their son? Would the cannon really matter?"