REDWOOD FALLS, Minn. — During his three decades in the United States Army, Jonathan Ceplecha learned how to rely on a “sitrep,” an abbreviated term for “situation report.”
Military service taught the 59-year-old that he can analyze any circumstance – no matter how dire – and formulate a solution.
Four months ago, on August 27, 2020, Ceplecha’s training helped save his life, when a routine landscaping exercise on his Redwood Falls property left him pinned under a tree. With nobody around to hear his screams for help, Ceplecha spent the next four days in pure survival mode, drinking rain water to quench his thirst and sipping from nearby plants to provide his body with nutrients.
The situation looked bleak.
But not impossible.
“You just look at the facts. You see things as they are, not as you want them to be. Then, you make a plan,” Ceplecha said. “So, I made my plan to survive.”
On the Thursday morning of August 27, Ceplecha made a half-cup of coffee and wandered onto a hill behind his home to take care of a simple housekeeping item.
He needed to cut some trees.
“My house overlooks the Minnesota River Valley,” Ceplecha said. “So, what I was doing, is I was clearing the view.”
Ceplecha, now retired from the military and teaching at-risk students in Marshall about 40 miles away, thought this easy summer project might take 10 minutes.
He grabbed his chainsaw and began slicing one of the trees.
“All I saw, was like a split-second – the trunk of that tree headed right toward my head,” Ceplecha said, remembering that he dodged out of the way to avoid instant death. “It caught me right around my legs, and then it just in effect pulled me underground. I was buried.”
Ceplecha wishes he could say that he remained calm from the beginning, but that was not his instant reaction. The tree had crushed his leg, leaving him in unthinkable pain and possibly bleeding out, with no neighbors in the immediate area to call for medical assistance.
“Immediately, I panicked,” Ceplecha said. “I thought, you know, I’m 59, I’m too young to die. I was thinking about all this stuff, then screaming for help, things like that, and then after that, after the panicking, I kind of calmed down. I thought, well, I’ll see if I can get myself out of this situation.”
He first used a technique called “chainsaw feathering,” in an attempt to spring himself loose from the tree. If he could free his legs, Ceplecha thought, he might be able to crawl to the house and call 911. The strategy didn’t work – a blessing he couldn’t appreciate at the time.
“If I had been successful, I probably would have bled out and died on the way on the way there,” Ceplecha said.
At the time, however, his inability to escape the tree appeared devastating.
Still bleeding profusely, his attitude began to shift in the wrong direction.
“I realized I was going to die,” Ceplecha said. “I didn’t panic, but, I thought, I need to make my peace with God, because this is it. There’s no chance I’m going to survive. Nobody can hear me. I knew that the chances of someone hearing me were well below three percent. So I was certain I was going to die. I did what I could, to do what I thought was necessary to get things right, to prepare yourself to die.”
Just hours into his ordeal, Ceplecha actually felt a sense of calm as he wrestled with his own mortality.
Then, he glanced toward his lower body, and saw something that gave him a glimmer of hope.
“I realized I had stopped bleeding,” he said. “Well, I quickly came to the conclusion that, if I’m not bleeding out, there’s a very small chance I can survive this.”
FOUR DAYS OF SURVIVAL
With a renewed spirit, Ceplecha formulated his “sitrep,” as they might say in the military. He knew that it was only Thursday, and that he might need to wait until the end of the weekend for his children, ex-wife or other family members to realize they had not heard from him, since classes at his school in Marshall would not begin until Monday.
Ceplecha planned to remain in place for at least five days, and possibly as long as 10, “courtesy of the tree,” he would later say.
Rainfall on Thursday evening provided Ceplecha about a cup and a half of drinking water, supplemented by nearby plants that he hoped would not poison him. Without rain on Friday or Saturday, however, Ceplecha worried he would die of dehydration at some point.
It is difficult to put into words how he must have felt for so many hours, with nothing to occupy his mind except for throbbing pain. Ceplecha, however, said he benefited from setting small goals throughout the day.
“Breaking stuff down into time periods. That began to occur on Saturday, when things were… difficult. And I would say to myself, ‘well, you think you can survive another half-hour? Yeah, I can do that.’ So I would survive another half-hour,” he said. “Think you can make it another five minutes? I would do that periodically.”
Ceplecha dreaded darkness the most.
“The nights, if you can imagine it, were more difficult than the days of being pinned under a tree. In every situation, the nights, you’re all alone out there. There was nothing. It was just the dark. I didn’t sleep that much. It was very difficult to sleep because there was so much pain,” he said. “’I’ve never felt so alone in my life.”
HELP ON THE WAY
On the Monday afternoon of Aug. 31, the Redwood County Sheriff’s Office received a request for a welfare check on Jonathan Ceplecha, who apparently had not shown up to work at his school in Marshall. His family also had no idea what had happened to him and began to wonder why he had stopped answering calls.
Joined by Jonathan’s ex-wife and daughter, sheriff’s deputies responded to Ceplecha’s home in Redwood Falls and started searching his wooded property.
His ex-wife called out: Hey, Jon, are you out there?
Ceplecha’s ears perked. “I popped my head up, and said, ‘yeah, Catherine, I’m here! I’m alive. My spirits are fairly good.’”
Chief Deputy Mark Farasyn, one of the responding law enforcement officials, chatted briefly with Ceplecha and marveled at his attitude.
“He had the will to live, and he wasn’t ready to go,” Farasyn said. “I don’t know many people who could survive an ordeal like that.”
It took two hours for first responders to finally pull Ceplecha to safety through an extrication process.
For the first time in four days, he was free.
“I was very happy,” Ceplecha said, “that the ordeal was over.”
A helicopter brought Ceplecha to Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis, where he entered the facility in stable condition. He spent some time in the ICU before doctors transferred him to the burn unit. By mid-September, Ceplecha learned he would need his right leg amputated below the knee, because “the majority of his right foot was beyond any hope of healing and absent of life,” according to a GoFundMe set up to assist the family.
For the next few weeks, Ceplecha saw progress mixed with occasional setbacks. He was in surgery constantly, and infections made his life very uncomfortable. In November, he landed at Meeker Manor in Litchfield, where he conducted a Zoom interview with KARE 11 shortly before the holidays. In another demoralizing twist, Ceplecha contracted COVID-19 in early December, which he described as a “nightmare.”
But he refused to sulk.
“My attitude is very good. Physically I’m doing fine,” Ceplecha said. “There have been, major, major, setbacks, but, I work my way through them.”
Unfortunately, on Christmas Day, Ceplecha faced another setback. His fever skyrocketed to more than 103 degrees, and his left leg experienced major swelling. He returned to HCMC, where he has another surgery scheduled later this week.
As he continues his difficult recovery, Ceplecha hopes his tale of survival will offer some inspiration to others. That, he says, is why he chose to share his story – not to highlight how he escaped a near-death experience, but rather to show others what is possible.
“You have to understand that you are stronger than you think you are,” Ceplecha said. “People love you, no matter what. And if you use that as a motivator, you can make it through anything.”
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