In the early morning hours of July 4, 2015, Zach Welsher needed to be alone.
The 2007 Bridgman High School graduate, now living in Kalamazoo, had received a phone call at work telling him a favorite aunt had been diagnosed with cervical cancer. As part of a close-knit family, the news hit him hard.
After his evening bartending shift, instead of going home as he usually would, he headed toward a remote lake that he described as “my thinking spot. I wanted to clear my head a little bit.”
Along the secluded road to the lake, 25-year-old Kelsey Secor needed a miracle.
It was 4:30 a.m. She was badly injured and unconscious in the car she had crashed into several trees.
Fortunately, the right person at the right place at the right time was on his way.
This Independence Day weekend, Welsher, 27, and Secor, 26, are celebrating a special kind of freedom after his fateful arrival and cool-headed actions at the accident scene, and her unexpectedly rapid recovery.
Last week, almost a year to the day after being critically injured, Secor returned to her job at Pfizer, which she had obtained only a couple of weeks before the accident.
On Saturday, for the first time, Welsher and Secor together revisited the spot where their lives intersected in such an unexpected way.
Welsher said the fact that Secor is back to work and driving in such a short time is “mind-blowing.”
He was looking forward to seeing her walk unassisted for the first time. “It’s going to be a big thing.”
Welsher does not believe he deserves the praise he has received for his actions that likely kept Secor alive until an ambulance arrived.
“I don’t see myself as a hero,” Welsher said. “I did what I was raised to do, to do the right thing. It didn’t matter if it was a 16-year-old kid or an 80-year woman, or if they were white, black or purple.”
Others have lauded Welsher for his life-saving efforts.
Ready to respond
Welsher is the son of Kaye Krieger, of Benton Township, and attended Trinity Lutheran School in St. Joseph before enrolling at Bridgman High. He was a lifeguard at Silver Beach County Park.
He attended Western Michigan University, majoring in education, but for the time being prefers the relatively lucrative compensation of a bartender.
Welsher still chokes up with emotion as he remembers the night of the crash and its aftermath.
Secor was just starting her new life.
She had graduated from Ferris State University with a degree in bio-technology in May and obtained a position with Pfizer three days after receiving her diploma.
She had the day off July 3 and spent it with friends. On her way home, she apparently fell asleep at the wheel and crashed about a mile from her mother’s house. An investigation found that alcohol was not involved.
Welsher said at first he did not see the wrecked car at the side of the road, and almost drove by.
“I just caught a glimpse of an arm sticking out (of the window) and waving,” Welsher recalled. He slammed on his brakes and raced backed to the accident scene, quickly calling 911.
Welsher was prepared for the emergency, having had training as an emergency responder, with CPR, first aid and other lifesaving instructions.
Inside the car, he found a young blonde woman lying face down in the driver’s seat.
Realizing the woman might have a spinal injury, he did not try to move her. He climbed toward her through the shattered passenger side window, and did not think she was breathing. She didn’t respond when he spoke to her.
“I thought she was gone,” Welsher said.
Stepping back, he suddenly felt as if his late grandfathers were with him, including his “Poppy,” Robert Wohler, a longtime Berrien County sheriff’s deputy and police chief of Coloma, and Ken Welsher, a military veteran.
“It was like they were kicking me in the butt and telling me to do everything you can to save her.”
Welsher leaned back through the broken window and, with his mouth about an inch away from the woman’s ear, he yelled.
He saw her shoulder twitch in response. She was alive.
To keep her brain and body active until the paramedics arrived, Welsher kept talking to Kelsey, at the same time keeping in touch with the dispatcher through his speaker phone.
“I kept telling her ‘I’m here. You’ve had an accident. I’m not going to leave you.’”
When he asked “Can you hear me?” her shoulder would move.
After she had been placed in an ambulance on the way to Bronson Hospital, responders told him “You did more than anyone else could have. You are the reason she is alive and has a fighting chance.”
Getting in touch
News of the accident and the rescue soon went out on social media and Welsher received hundreds of “likes” and congratulatory messages that he called “flattering.”
He didn’t even know the name of the woman in the car until it was released by the local news – Kelsey Secor, age 25.
Welsher wanted to see her and meet her family, but did not want to intrude on their privacy at that difficult time. He finally decided to visit the hospital to learn how she was doing.
When he met her mom and dad, Karen Jenkins and Garry Secor, “it was instant tears from all of us. They hugged me and kept saying thank you, we were looking for you and hoping that you would come here.”
They called him their “Guardian Angel.”
Later, Kelsey was upgraded to stable but serious condition. It was going to be a long road to a full recovery, but she was going to live.
“It felt like a thousand pounds dropped off of me,” Welsher said. “It was such a relief to know she was going to make it.”
A couple of weeks later he finally got to meet Kelsey, still in the intensive care unit but “adamant” that she wanted to see the man who helped her.
She noticed the scratches on Welsher’s arms he received from reaching through the broken car windows. She mouthed the words “What is that?”
Lying almost paralyzed in the hospital bed, “she was concerned about me,” Welsher said.
An immediate bond grew between them, as well as with her family members, that has lasted through her hospital stay and her rehabilitation.
Secor said she received a lot of support from family and friends, and having Zach’s visits to look forward to helped a lot.
On his days off Welsher would visit Kelsey in the hospital and in rehab in Grand Rapids. On Sundays they would have movie nights together, and her mother would make home-cooked meals for them.
At first Kelsey couldn’t move her legs. Welsher watched her make progress from wiggling her toes and stretching her fingers and knuckles, to walking with a harness.
“I told her ‘I started this with you, in the middle of nowhere, where it was pitch black, just me and you, and we’re going to finish it together. We’re going to cross the finish line together,’” Welsher said.
Kelsey said doctors weren’t sure if she would ever walk again. But she was determined she wasn’t going to spend the rest of her life in a wheelchair.
In August she was transferred from Bronson Hospital in Kalamazoo to Mary Free Bed in Grand Rapids for physical therapy. She returned home March 31 and had her final rehab session two weeks ago.
Welsher insists that Kelsey and her parents are the real heroes in this story.
“She’s a very big inspiration to me,” he said.
The past year has been life-altering for both young people.
“So much has gone on this year, it’s made me realize that, along with the quantity of life, the quality of life, too often it’s overshadowed by all the negatives,” he said. He is dedicated to focusing on the positive.
Kelsey agreed the accident was a wake-up call.
“I appreciate things a whole lot more. I appreciate life and the little things way more. I’m more patient.”
She drives by the accident site on her way home every day, so returning won’t be a big deal, she said. She expected her reunion with Zach, whom she hasn’t seen since December, would be emotional.
Welsher has many friends who are police and firefighters in St. Joseph, Bridgman and Benton Harbor. Another friend is a recruiter for the Michigan State Police and one is a sheriff in Colorado.
But he said he has no intentions of pursuing a career as a first responder, especially after experiencing the painful emotional fallout that came after the immediate crisis had passed.
He thinks that every citizen should be trained and ready to handle life’s emergencies when they occur.
“It will benefit you, even if you only use it once in your life, that will make it worth it,” Welsher said.
Contact: jmatuszak@TheHP.com, 932-0360, Twitter: @HPMatuszak