Matt Pomerinke couldn't wait to begin his new job at Gram Lumber in Kalama.
It was 1998. He was 21, living with his girlfriend, and life was humming.
In a matter of months, an accident would crush his left arm and shred his youthful innocence.
Today, Pomerinke is a papermaker and safety rep at Longview Fibre, a husband and a father who takes time out to share his experience with young workers around the state.
As part of a safety awareness program through L&I, Washington's Labor and Industries department, the Longview man spoke at the Clark County Skills Center in Vancouver last week.
Thanks to Pomerinke, about 50 vocational students found out why they need to man up about job safety. First, they watched a graphic documentary about four young workers paralyzed or disabled by workplace accidents. The room was very quiet by the time the Longview man took over to tell his tale.
‘The whistle blew, and everything started moving'
"I got pulled into a chain drive," Pomerinke said, in his backwards baseball cap and quiet, blunt manner. "It's just like a bike chain, but bigger.
"Why did it happen? Training was a big factor."
He got hired after a morning interview with a man whose son went to high school with Pomerinke.
"I knew the guy. He shook my hand. We talked football and cars. We never talked about mechanized systems or how they worked."
Pomerinke had been working since he was 16, at one time holding three jobs. At the time, he was working at Jack-in-the-Box, so a shot at higher pay in the mills was a big break.
"I got a pay raise right out the door," he said. "They said come back at 3 o'clock. I went home and took a nap. I was pretty excited."
When he arrived for his shift, he was shown the bathroom, the break room, the parking lot and where to clock in.
"They gave me my hard hat. The lead guy showed up at 3:30 and said, ‘Good to meet you.' " They chatted while Pomerinke put on his chaps and gloves and was told he'd be stacking rows of lumber.
"Then the whistle blew, and everything started moving."
Over a period of months, said Pomerinke, "I excelled. I had fast hands and good eyes. It was a pretty easy job, really."
He got two quick promotions, ending up on the short chain and making more money. For eight hours, he'd take feeder boards and put them on the conveyor belt.
At the end of the shift, when you had to clean up, "you did it fast," he said. "It would be 12:30 in the morning, and you'd be full of sweat. It's just picking up sticks; what could happen?"
On Jan. 7, 1999, something did happen.
Where Pomerinke was cleaning up, there was no guard on the drive chain for the conveyer, and the sleeve of his hickory shirt caught in the chain, wrapped around the shaft and pulled his arm into the motor casing.
"It got dragged through the conveyor," he said. "It was like slow motion. I can see the all the tissue, I can hear the bone crushing. The smell — metal and blood, it's something I can't describe."
His coworker, a close friend, got to the controls as another worker applied a tourniquet "that probably saved my life," he said. "He got it on, and then he leaned over and puked his guts out."
At the end of the chain, Pomerinke could see his friend. "His head is in his hands. He doesn't know what to do or what to say. ...
"At first, it was a big hit of pain. Then, nothing. It just shut off the whole side of my body."
When the hulking millwright they called "Ogre" showed up, Pomerinke actually made a joke. "I said, "Hey, put a guard on this.' He started crying."
An ambulance took Pomerinke to Oregon Health Sciences University in Portland because it was too foggy to land a Life Flight helicopter at the mill. Although he was in shock, the memory of the hospital is still vivid. "The surgeon said, ‘OK, here's your options."
Pomerinke could have his arm put back together, through surgeries to graft skin from other parts of his body. "You can have a pretty productive life," the surgeon told him, "but that hand's never going to work again."
The other choice was to amputate the arm at the elbow and attach a prosthetic arm that would allow Pomerinke to have a working limb and claw-type hand.
The surgeon needed to act right away, so Pomerinke had to make up his mind then and there.
"I was 21 years old," he said. "The biggest decisions I had to make were what we should have for dinner and what movie to see."
He chose the prosthetic. And the second he made the choice, he said, "the pain hit. It hurt bad" until the morphine drip kicked in and he was under an anesthetic.
Sam Sanders, the production manager at Gram Lumber today, was not employed there when Pomerinke was injured.
Sanders said current safety practices enlist "all the plant managers and shift supervisors as well as the employees. We sit down and go through orientation, where the supervisor has a checklist of all the required training materials, job performance and safety regulations."
New employees are paired "with an experienced worker, to make sure they have plenty of supervision until they get up to speed," Sanders said.
"We're pro-active on machine guarding; we make sure equipment is in place."
He said employees sometimes think, ‘Oh, I can do that real quick.' And they do it, a thousand times. It's that one time you can't, and you can't get it back. It's tragic when it happens."
‘Suck it up, move on'
Pomerinke lost more than his left arm.
Some friends couldn't deal with what happened, and they avoided him. They included the guy who was working with him that night.
"We can't even say hi to each other. It's got to where, if I see his truck in the parking lot at the store, I don't go in. He just can't re-live it."
Pomerinke suffered from depression and mood swings. He went through more surgery because of problems with the wound site. He had rehab sessions four days a week for six months, "trying to get my body to do what it had never done before. ... You sit there and cry. You ride it out."
"What am I going to do?" he'd think. "I had to suck it up, move on."
And he did move on, fortunately with good traveling companions.
Pomerinke's girlfriend, Nagwa, stayed the course; they married and have a 9-year-old daughter and a 6-year-old son. His family, including parents Don and Ruth Pomerinke, supported him.
His shift boss and others at the Kalama mill "were great," he said. They encouraged him to go to college and paid his tuition when he took them up on it, he said. He received an $80,000 settlement, he said, which he and Nagwa used for a down payment on a house and other expenses.
Pomerinke's battery-operated prosthetics — he has several — respond to sensors he works with upper arm muscles. "I have a very nice hand for when I go out to dinner, but the claw works best for me. I'm rough on my toys."
At Fibre, Pomerinke is a stock man on the No. 10 paper machine and he's active in safety training.
His perspective and sense of humor survived, which makes his presentations all the stronger. This is a guy who tattooed what's left of his left arm with a image of a bloody socket and the date of the accident: 1-7-99.
"Mom was real impressed," he said.
Pomerinke said he's willing to relive that night during his presentations if it means some other 20- or 21-year-old might avoid a work-related accident.
He told the trainees last week that one of his current responsibilities is interviewing job applicants.
"The people that ask about safety, how we treat each other on the job — they're the ones we hire," he said. "Training can get overlooked. Some people can see every hazard, but the other 99.9 percent of us need the training. Demand training."