AUSTINTOWN — Every time he went home, Patrolman Ross Linert practiced buckling and unbuckling his seat belt.
“I’m a police officer,” he said. “I knew the history of the Crown Vics. But I even did it in the Chevys. I never knew when I would need to get out of the car in a hurry.”
So after every shift the 13-year veteran of the Austintown Police Department, clicked and and unclicked his seat belt, making the process like second nature.
At 1:08 a.m. Nov. 11, that practicing, he said, saved his life.
He was on patrol along Meridian Road when a car police say was driven by Adrien Foutz, 22, of Girard, crashed into him from behind. An accident reconstruction report released by the Ohio State Highway Patrol last week states Foutz was travelling between 95 mph and 102 mph when she struck Linert’s Ford cruiser.
“I don’t remember too much of the accident,” the patrolman said. “I caught a glimpse of her at the last second, and she was right on me.”
The cruiser erupted in flames. Linert’s self-training kicked in as he unhooked his belt and opened cruiser’s door. When Austintown Patrolman Ron McComb arrived a few minutes later, he saw the cruiser explode and continue rolling across Meridian Road. He found Linert walking around at the accident scene.
After the impact, Linert said the next thing he remembers is waking up in a hospital a month later.
Linert’s wife, Brenda, was awakened that November morning by the family’s pet beagle barking incessantly. She’d fallen asleep on the couch watching Jon Bon Jovi on Saturday Night Live, and said she was confused as to what the two Austintown officers on the front porch wanted.
“Everything was a blur,” she said. “The only thing I could remember was they kept saying someone needed to come stay with my kids. I couldn’t figure out what happened. I asked, ‘What happened, did my kids sneak out?’”
She saw her husband at St. Elizabeth Health Center in Youngstown that night; he already was hooked up to machines.
“I saw his face and it was black. I thought, oh, it’s just charred, it’s just dirty. It’s not that bad. I didn’t know that skin burns black.”
He was transported to the Burn Unit in Akron Children’s Hospital, with Brenda following in a cruiser, lights and sirens blaring. They took her to a waiting room and a short while later, Austintown police Chief Robert Gavalier arrived to wait with her.
“Then, all of a sudden about 20 doctors and nurses started running through. We looked at each other and thought, this can’t be good,” Brenda Linert said. “We felt so helpless.”
The head nurse told her Ross had been “coding,” that is, experiencing difficulties with his heart and having a seizure.
“We just waited. It seemed like an eternity, but the doctor came out and told us they’d been able to get him calmed down, that he’d had a seizure brought on by the trauma.”
Ross was put into a drug-induced coma for more than a month with burns covering 30 percent of his body. Acting on the advice of the hospital surgeons and a child psychologist, Brenda Linert first showed her two young sons, ages 10 and 5, photos of their father before going to visit him in Akron.
“I wanted them to see the tubes and so on,” she said. “They knew what to expect.”
Eight surgeries later, Ross Linert is now continuing his recovery at home. After two days, Brenda Linert said, he tossed away the walker he was supposed to use.
“That’s just the kind of person he is,” she said. “He said, ‘I don’t need this, it’s just getting in my way’ and chucked it.”
Last week, he jogged at therapy, she said.
It’s the loss of mobility, however, that he says bothers him most. “Not having my vision is the hardest part,” he said. “I’m not able to drive ... ” he said. “It’s been slow. It’s depressing. There are only so may things you can watch on TV and only so many things to do around the house.”
He was never one to laze about.
“I’ve always been a go-getter, going 100 miles an hour,” he said. “It’s a big set back.”
Right now, he travels to Akron several times a week for therapy and rehabilitation. He’s scheduled for another surgery on his hands to release the tendons that have tightened up due to scar tissue, he said. He’ll also need a surgery to permit him to close his eyes. Those are the two major setbacks, he said, and he hopes to return to work in the fall.
“They tell me you need a year to recover from this, and I’m only four months in,” he said.
Brenda Linert said her husband’s physical appearance has changed. Sheet grafts from the top of his skull were done on the most visible areas, like his face. Mesh grafts using skin from his back and right leg were done to cover his arms and left leg, which was burned completely around.
But secondary to his appearance is the physical effects of the healing, she said.
“He’s constantly itchy,” she said. “He’ll never be able to perspire from the grafted skin.” That means that when he sweats, his body won’t be able to cool the grafted skin. He’ll need to use lotions and moisturizers for the rest of his life, she said.
The initial grafting process was shocking, she said.
“The skin on his face was all purple and black, and the doctors kept saying it looked really good. I asked them, ‘Are you sure?’ she said. After healing, however, the skin grafts on his face faded to the same color as the rest of his facial skin.
“The support of the community has been overwhelming,” Ross Linert said. “So many good people have helped us, bringing gifts, food.”
Brenda Linert said she credits the staff of Akron Children’s Hospital with saving Ross’ life and also with making the event easier for the family.
“The doctors, the nurses, everyone is amazing,” she said. Time and time again, Ross’ surgeon Dr. Timothy Pittinger says he’s amazed, watching Ross’ recovery, she said.
“He keeps saying that just another minute and Ross and Anthony wouldn’t have a father,” she said.
Foutz is free on $25,000 bail, which she posted three days after the accident. Blood samples taken from her shortly after the accident show her blood alcohol content was 0.255. An initial Breathalyzer test after the crash came in at 0.279 percent. The legal limit in Ohio is 0.08.
In an interview Foutz had with a trooper from Canfield Barracks of the Ohio State Highway Patrol shortly after the accident, she admitted to drinking mixed drinks and beer before Linert’s cruiser was hit, transcripts show.
After the accident, all cruisers in the Austintown Police Department were fitted with special fire-retarder systems around the gas tanks. The federal government is preparing a report on the crash to determine if there was a defect with the car.
A pretrial hearing has been set for April 11 in Common Pleas Judge John Durkin’s courtroom, where a trial has been set for April 21. The Linerts say they will be there.
“Hopefully the justice system will do its work,” he said, explaining the trauma he and his family have experienced ‘‘isn’t right. I’m lucky to be here.”
Brenda Linert said it’s given the family a new outlook on life.
“I never really thought about the dangers he’d face. I just thought my husband’s a cop. I never thought about the horrible things that can happen,” she said. “It makes you realize your whole life can change in an instant.”