GREENVILLE — Joe Liuzza got home alive, but just barely.
Only through grit and determination was he able to win his battle against nature and pull himself and his mangled leg out of a swamp following a hunting-related accident near Robersonville that turned into a 14-hour ordeal.
Liuzza, 47, was home temporarily from the hospital on Dec. 13 and feeling a little more relaxed as he recounted the details of his harrowing — and at times horrifying — experience. It was easy to see in his features — and by the steel cage that wrapped around his right lower leg, rods poking through the skin to hold the disconnected portions of his bones in place — that he had been through an ordeal that he and his wife, Delia, owner of The Tipsy Teapot on Evans Street in Greenville, would never forget. She served as her husband's sign language interpreter because Joe is deaf.
Liuzza said he still is having flashbacks of the pain he endured, attacked and overcame rather than succumb and possibly die.
"I slept well for the first time last night, after I got home," he said. "They kept waking me in the hospital to give me extra antibiotics because I was, you know, in the swamp."
Liuzza said he was born a hunter. Swamps and woods are his living room. He started going out with his father when he was 5 years old and watched him shoot pheasant in the fields of New Jersey and New York.
"There's no pheasant around here, so I went hunting deer on Sunday (Dec. 9). I was by myself," Liuzza said.
He hadn't bothered telling his wife his plans, typical of their independent natures. That will change, they agreed.
"Joe and I communicate well, but not often," Delia said. "I work long hours, and he does his thing. We're both very independent people and usually don't tell each other where we're going."
Liuzza went to his father's property near Robersonville, which he had not hunted before, and decided it had possibilities. His friends already had bagged their annual deer, so he trekked alone through tough terrain about 100 yards into the woods about 2 p.m.
"I thought it would be safer being out there alone because there were no crazy hunters around." he said. "You know how they can get. I like to be alone a lot, anyway."
He carried his 30-30 lever-action Winchester rifle, a deer stand, a belt pack with a knife, three bullets, a first aid kit, gloves and a cellphone in his pocket. He had a canteen but did not fill it because he planned to be there only a couple of hours.
Liuzza picked a suitable tree on which to set his stand about 20 feet high. He set his pack on the tree to keep it close but away from his movements. After two or three hours, with darkness setting in and no deer spotted, Liuzza decided to call it a day and get down from the tree. He first lowered his rifle to the ground and leaned it against a nearby tree, then undid his safety harness and reached for his equipment on the other tree. But his stand suddenly collapsed.
"It happened instantly," Liuzza said. "I went straight down and felt my right leg pop as I hit the ground and tumbled into the water. I felt the pain shoot all the way to my head."
Alone in the swamp, the hunter wanted to act quickly and search for his belongings and cellphone so he could stabilize his injury and call for help, but the pain in his leg would not allow him to move. He lay there and looked up at his equipment belt hanging in a tree with the stars beyond, wanting to get home to Delia. He realized he had not planned with her for this possibility. He noticed how beautiful the stars were, then passed out for about an hour.
When he awoke, Liuzza set to work getting himself out of the swamp, thinking about things he had read in survival books that might help. He reached around him in search of the tree stand and harness strapping that was around it and camouflage cloth under it. but the slightest movement triggered excruciating pain in his leg.
"I thought about shooting off the gun as a signal, but I only had three bullets and needed them for protection," he said.
He looked at the water around him and knew he couldn't get through the 3-foot deep swamp in his condition. He decided he had to fix his leg. He bent his knee and managed to get his boot off of his right foot.
"My leg was flopping off to the side, so I made the decision to straighten it," he said. "At first I couldn't touch it, but I took a deep breath and twisted my leg."
He tried to describe the pain he felt at that moment, but in his living room could not find the words. His face and eyes told everything he could not say.
Liuzza could see he had failed to set the leg properly, but had to get it done before he could think about moving through the woods. He braced his will power and gave his foot a hard shove, feeling the bones move, this time feeling some relief. The muddy swamp water had put his cellphone out of commission, deflating his hopes of calling for help. He crawled far enough to find his tree stand and, using the strapping and cloth on it with the length of rope he had, fashioned a makeshift splint around some sticks he held to his leg.
With his leg and foot as secure as he could make them, Liuzza began to crawl. He fell into a water hole and dragged himself out of it, then passed out again. When he awoke again, he adjusted his splint to keep his foot from flopping about, held it in place with one hand and again began to crawl, using his other arm and strong left foot.
"I moved like an inch worm, first reaching my free arm and gun out in front of me, then pulling myself forward a few inches at a time, like an animal digging through tunnels in the dirt," Liuzza said.
He could only see about a yard in front of him in the dark swamp, but beyond the darkness and through the trees, he saw the light of a trailer about a hundred yards beyond the edge of the woods. Then he passed out again.
"When I woke up again, I told myself I have to get home, I have to get going," he said. "I didn't want to die there, so I kept crawling,"
The exhausted and thirsty Liuzza kept moving, his eyes fixed toward the light. He crawled around fallen logs, one after the other. After several hours, Liuzza emerged into the field but still was about 100 yards from his truck. He thought about staying there until he was discovered, but the coldness of the wet grass convinced him to try to reach the trailer. Liuzza fixed his mind and crawled to the trailer, then passed out again. When he awoke again, he was nauseous and sick and knew he had to get to a hospital. There was no one in the trailer, but Liuzza caught sight of the nearby fishing pond where his truck was parked, about 50 yards away.
Using his last bits of energy, Liuzza moved forward, passing out and coming to several times more until reaching his truck. He started the engine and lay inside for nearly an hour, letting the heat envelop and soothe him. It was 6 a.m. when he decided to make the drive. Using his rifle butt to work the gas pedal, he shifted his manual transmission into first, then second gear. Liuzza ignored stop signs and drove the 20 miles straight to his home off of N.C. 11 north of Greenville.
"I knew it would all be OK if I got to Delia," Liuzza said.
He made it home to his wife, then to the hospital. Portions of the two bones he shattered are gone, and the twisted shards of bone ends had torn away part of the skin from his leg. He will require several surgeries in the attempt to repair his mangled leg. But it could have been worse, he realized.
"I really didn't think I would make it until I got to the truck," he said.
There were no playful scoldings recently from Delia or comical remarks about Joe's judgment. She was only grateful for his survival and nervous about the future.
"He told me he's learned his lesson," she said. "I'm just glad he's here with me,"
The Liuzzas don't have health insurance and face some tough days ahead. She works about 80 hours a week running her downtown café, trying to keep make ends meet.
A Web link has been set up for anyone interested in helping the Liuzzas at https://fundrazr.com/campaigns/bP942?psid=6b17fd0de68348c3961ee24a34b0d2d7