Against All Odds: Farmer Survives Epic Ordeal

In the annals of survival history, Sampson Parker’s ordeal at the brink of death ranks as an epic account of phenomenal will, tenacity and faith. ( Lee Ann Parker )

How far will a man go to save his life and return to his family?

Blood on dirt. Fire on flesh. Steel on bone. In the early morning hours of Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2007, Sampson Parker sat on the edge of his bed and tucked a pair of work boots beneath faded jeans, primed for the kickoff of corn harvest. Exiting the bedroom, he paused to stare at the gleam of a small John Deere pocketknife beckoning on the dresser, and inexplicably, considering Parker had never carried a knife a day in his life, grabbed the 3” lockback blade and walked out of the house—without the slightest premonition of the hell he was about to endure.

In the annals of survival history, Parker’s ordeal at the brink of death ranks as an epic account of phenomenal will, tenacity and faith. Gruesomely pinned in the cogs of grinding farm machinery in a corn field for over two hours, and on the verge of consumption by a torrent of flames, Parker faced a primal choice of death or escape by excruciatingly painful self-amputation. His improbable story and emergence rival any fiction, and are testament to a man transformed by dire circumstance. Parker is resolute: Salvation came by the hand of Providence.

Walking Toward the Gauntlet 

As highway project superintendent for Blythe Construction, Inc., Parker, 44, was bound to a 9 a.m. crew meeting on Sept. 11, in Monroe, N.C., but the remainder of the morning and afternoon was slated for solo harvest at his relatively isolated, 50-acre family farm an hour south across the state line in Kershaw County, S.C. Parker’s harvest work was bookended by a 5 p.m. shopping date with his wife, Lee Ann, at Walmart in Concord. Due to a complete lack of cellular service at the farm, Parker’s disappearing act from mid-morning to early evening was expected and would trigger no alarm.

With the 9 a.m. construction meeting in the rearview mirror, and early fall heat climbing toward the low 90s, Parker turned south in a white Ford F-150 toward open Carolina blue sky and harvest waiting in his fields. Initially growing corn as feed for personal deer management, Parker’s efforts had blossomed into a small venture providing corn to local hunters. “I was excited and couldn’t wait to get to the farm to start picking. Beautiful sunshine and perfect sky; I couldn’t have asked for a better setup,” he recalls.

An hour later, at approximately 11 a.m., Parker pulled up beside an aging wooden barn, chased a sandwich with a bottle of water, and soaked in the silence, enveloped by fields of Kershaw County corn, far removed from the clamor of road construction. But just below the surface of rural bliss, a scenario of absolute torment was churning. By all downstream assessments, as Parker left his cellphone on the console and stepped away from the truck toward the barn, he was walking toward what should have been death.

The Road to Damascus

Old-school camel train. Leading with a 75-hp 2840 John Deere tractor, Parker hooked up a 1960s-model, one-row New Idea 323 picker, followed by a bin wagon as a caboose. The three-piece caravan rumbled into action at approximately 11:30 a.m., easing down the rows into tall stalks and giant ears of what was the most promising crop of Parker’s life. An hour later, with the wagon almost full of corn, he noticed the right-front tractor tire going flat, and attempted another row before heading back to the barn for air, but only yards into the additional row, the tire deflated nearly to the rim. Parker left the tractor running (on hot days the 2840 would often refuse to crank if turned off) in the field, shut down the picker, walked 100 yards to the barn, and drove back in the truck carrying a portable air compressor. “Just a little problem at first,” he remembers. “It all started with a simple flat tire.”

On Sept. 11, 2007, Sampson Parker’s three-piece caravan rumbled into action at approximately 11:30 a.m., easing down the rows into tall stalks and giant ears of what was the most promising crop of his life. (Photo credit: Lee Ann Parker)

After hooking up the small compressor and estimating a 20-minute fill-up time, Parker walked behind the picker to inspect the machinery. The rear wall of the picker box housed a slanted, 8”-by-2” opening just below the rollers, and through the tiny window, he could see a huge tangle of shucks. Cantankerous and showing its age, the picker wasn’t shedding shucks properly and the unit was clogged. Kneeling down beside the access window and wearing cloth work gloves, Parker began removing the mess and soon was surrounded by a bed of pulled shucks. “I had the whole thing about half cleaned out when I spotted a stalk stuck in the rollers. I yanked, but it wouldn’t come out, so I kept on cleaning out shucks.”

Separated by less than an inch of space, six rollers operated in pairs, rotating in opposite directions. The single stalk caught in the rollers was about to trigger a bear trap. Just before 1 p.m., Parker stood up and walked around the tractor to check the tire progress—by now halfway inflated. Ignoring a curious urge to cut off the compressor and drive to the barn, he went back around the tractor and flipped the power takeoff lever to engage the picker, expecting the rollers to eject the stubborn stalk. “I looked back in the opening and there it was, still stuck.”

In haste, Parker broke all tenets of safety, reaching through the tiny access window with his dominant right hand and yanking down on the stalk—despite the tractor running and corn picker engaged. No change. Frustrated, he pushed up on the stalk, and in a fraction of an instant, it shot through the rollers, jerking his hand along for the ride and trapping it between a rubber roller and a teethed, steel roller. Specifically designed to rip husks from stalks, the rollers had Parker’s gloved hand in a vise, literally tearing it apart and threatening to pull his entire arm into the machine.

Immediately, blood cascaded down Parker’s arm, along with skin and flesh, as if he’d jammed his hand into an “industrial meat grinder.” As waves of sensation surged through his nerve fibers and roared into his cortex, Parker was rolled by “indescribable” pain: “Chunks of my hand were falling down and all I could do was scream and scream. It took everything I had to grab my right forearm to keep from being pulled further into the machine. It was pain I’d never felt. There was no slow-motion effect or slowing down of time; everything happened with blazing speed.”

Survival at all costs: The rear wall of the picker box housed a slanted, 8”-by-2” opening. (Photo credit: Lee Ann Parker)

Dressed in a short-sleeve pullover shirt and jeans, Parker’s body thrashed in the dirt as he fought for traction against the machine, yet the rollers’ grip grew tighter. Placing his knees on the back of the picker for leverage, he pulled with every ounce of strength inside a 6’3”, 220 lb. frame, intending to rip his hand off, but the rollers held fast. The harder he pulled, the more the rollers tightened.

For the next hour and a half­—a veritable eternity under the circumstances—Parker struggled in the dirt, unable to find the slightest fraction of relief, yet fully aware the rollers were waiting patiently for his strength to wane. Aiming to jam the mechanics of the picker, he dug into the ground with his free left hand and dropped soil and rocks over the top of the metal walls, hoping to clog the rollers. When the dirt mix proved of no consequence, Parker tossed in his belt and boots, again to no effect. With his cellphone in the truck (and no cellular service on the farm), Parker was keenly aware of the blunt reality: He was trapped in the jaws of the picker and time was on the side of the machine.

Seventy-five miles north, Lee Ann carried on with her work day as office assistant at Gary D. Morgan, CPA, P.A., entirely unaware of Parker’s plight. She wouldn’t suspect anything beyond the ordinary until at least 5 p.m. In the moment, at 2:30 p.m. in a South Carolina corn field, Parker was a forlorn man begging for life. “I had done everything I could to get free and nothing worked. Since Lee Ann and my son, Sampson, Jr., were the only ones who knew where I was at, I started to think I might die right there in the field.”

Soaked in heavy perspiration, desperately thirsty, and contorted in the dirt with his right arm extended into the tiny window, his anguished cries were swallowed by the din of the grinding corn picker and idling tractor. Parker was dying. Alone. Isolated. Trapped.

Nominally religious for his entire life, Parker was confronted with a road-to-Damascus moment, kneeling in the rows of corn. “I’d done my own thing all my life and rode the fence. I cried out to God. I cried out to Jesus. Right then, everything changed because my cry was heard. No way was I giving up. I didn’t know how, but I knew God was going to get me out.”

Sight Unseen

Seizing on the clarity, Parker turned around to the hitch connecting the picker and bin wagon, and pulled loose an 8”-by-3/4” pin. He reached over the picker box with his left hand and tried to jam the pin into the rollers, coming perilously close to disaster. “I felt the rollers spin and they almost caught my fingers. I couldn’t see so I just dropped in the pin, hoping for a jam. Nothing.”

“I didn’t know how, but I knew God was going to get me out.” (Photo credit: Lee Ann Parker)

Falling back to his knees, Parker maintained his calm, uttered a prayer, and began wiggling the hitch and remaining pins. In his 2010 book, Unthinkable Choice, penned in tandem with Lee Ann, Parker describes the improbability related to the hitch extraction: “While I was collecting myself for another attempt to get free, I looked down and saw the big hitch on the back of the corn picker. That hitch was attached with a 12 inch by ¾ inch diameter pin. And that large pin is locked in place by a cotter pin...Somehow I reached down and pinched the open end of the cotter pin together, slipped it out, and pulled the large pin free. I have since tried to do the same thing under normal circumstances and I can’t physically do it. Even now it takes a pair of pliers to bend and unbend the same type of cotter pin.”

Parker lifted the bulky trailer hitch over the picker wall and blindly rammed the big chunk of metal into the rollers, hoping for a catch. Pounding down to the point of exhaustion, he gave up, dropped the hitch atop the rollers, and narrowed his focus onto a new tactic utilizing the 12” pin pulled from the hitch.

Unable to see around the edge of the picker, Parker stretched his arm around the left corner and attempted to insert the pin into the cycling chain and gears on the side of the picker, depending entirely on memory and vibration to determine the location. He flinched and dropped the pin to the ground as the mechanical whir almost snagged his hand. Pausing a few seconds to maintain calm, Parker palmed the dirt, searching for the pin. Hand on metal, he found the pin in the dirt and tried again, inserting it into the spin of moving parts, sight unseen. Parker’s heart leaped as the picker lurched. The rollers had stopped.

At All Costs

“This was it. This was my chance pull my hand free. I knew if the pin broke loose, I’d be finished.”

Parker braced his socked feet against the picker and strained with all the power he could muster to break free. Nothing. Not even the slightest degree of subsidence in the rollers that held his hand. As his legs collapsed back in the dirt and bed of surrounding husks, the picker’s slip clutch groaned as the rollers attempted to turn, and the machine began to vibrate, with every cog in open rebellion. Parker was playing a mechanical waiting game, forced to wager his life on when the rollers would roar back into action.

Compelled by absolute necessity, he reached into his front-left pocket and grabbed the John Deere pocketknife as the picker rocked. Survival at all costs. Parker was about to cut off his fingers, one by one, until the hand slipped free.

Trading Fire for Flesh

“Sampson doesn’t carry a knife,” Lee Ann explains. “It was sitting on the dresser that morning and I believe he picked it up because God knew he would need it on that exact day of the accident. Even today, Sampson still doesn’t carry a knife.”

The knife was gifted to Parker by a John Deere representative several months earlier, in May 2007. “It was crazy because I never keep a knife on me, but that morning, getting my clothes on, I put it in my pocket. It’s small; the blade by itself is less than 3” long,” he says.

“Fire will make you do things you think you won’t do.”  (Photo credit: Lee Ann Parker)

With no prior use, the polished blade was factory sharp. Spurred by the quaking picker, Parker reached over the box and down to his trapped right hand, now almost numb to sensation, and began a swift cutting motion, working quickly in a race against the grinding slip clutch. After sawing away three grossly swollen fingers, Parker could feel a diminishment in the rollers’ grip. Buoyed by the genuine possibility of escape, Parker suddenly was hit by an acrid scent of smoke just as he prepared to cut into a fourth finger: The slip clutch was throwing sparks across the makeshift bed of dry husks. Essentially, Parker was kneeling in tinder. Maddeningly, on the cusp of freedom, after almost two hours of torment, Parker realized the picker was on the verge of conflagration. “The corn shucks erupted like a gasoline fire all around me, and everything started burning.”

Instinctually, Parker dropped the precious knife into the picker box, and began frantically sweeping the burning shucks away with his right leg and left hand. Inside the picker, still half filled with shucks, the fire began to spread, roasting Parker’s immobile arm and subjecting him to an entirely new level of agony. “Melting skin started rolling down my arm, but I couldn’t move and had to take it.”

Feeding off the shucks, the left picker tire caught fire, and the wind began pushing a wall of flame around the edge of the box, directly into Parker’s upper body. “It was like somebody hitting you with a blowtorch and not being able to move. It singed my eyebrows and the left side of my hair; not a single burn on my face.”

In seconds, Parker was nearly enveloped by flames, his right arm and right leg both on fire, and his left side threatened by the burning tire sending flames licking around the picker box edge. “Fire will make you do things you think you won’t do. Fire put me in another world. While my arm was melting and my leg was burning clear to the bone, I remember praying, ‘Don’t let my family find me burned to death in the back of this picker.’ I asked God for help and my prayer was answered.”

Rather than burn to death, Parker operated on pure instinct, thrusting his left hand back into the box, desperately searching for the knife he couldn’t see, intent to cut off his arm. “All I saw was flames shooting everywhere and couldn’t see over the box anyway, but the knife was my last chance. I reached in and my hand went straight to it. Unbelievable; a total miracle. In an instant, I had the knife in my hand exactly when I needed it. God had taken my left hand and put it right on top of the knife.”

Without pause or consideration, Parker stabbed the steel blade into his right forearm, 2.5” below the elbow—and blacked out from the pain. The macabre image of Parker wedged inside a corn picker and surrounded by a raging fire, with a knife jammed in his arm, is contrasted by his crystalline memories while unconscious. “I could only have been out seconds, but I clearly remember looking down at Lee Ann and my mom arguing about where I was going to be buried. Next, the scene shifted to my son and his girlfriend getting married, without me. Even in that moment, the emotions were stunning. I remember watching them so well, as if I was floating above everyone. Then, reality crashed in. I woke up and was slinging my head back and forth, screaming in pain.”

Trading fire for flesh, Parker grabbed the knife and again attempted to cut off his arm. He sliced furiously through skin, muscle and tendons in a circular fashion, screaming from the depths of his being, while digging deep into the ground with his feet and knees, clawing for the will to continue. “The speed of the fire made me work fast, and I’d estimate the cutting took up to 20 seconds. Of all the pain I’d been through over two hours, this was again something different. It was pain I don’t know how to describe.”

With no connecting flesh left to cut, Parker stabbed furiously into the bone, but couldn’t make a break. Spurred by the incessantly building heat of the surrounding inferno, he lifted his body and turned the picker into a tool. A thin piece of sheet metal ran along the bottom edge of the 8” window. “I raised up off my knees and dropped to the ground as hard as I could. When I came down, the bones broke off and I was free from the picker.”

In the moment directly after his radius and ulna snapped in two, the burning picker tire exploded, blowing Parker backward several feet. He scrambled to his feet, spurting blood from his arm 2’ to 3’ with every heartbeat, and made a bootless run for the truck across the same rows he had picked hours earlier, while shouting at the top of his lungs with maniacal relief: “I’m free. I’m free. Freeeee.”

A Pitiful Requiem

The truck was still running with the driver-side door open, and the compressor remained hooked to the tractor tire. Parker spilled into the cab, shifted into drive with his left hand and drove for help toward the nearest road bordering the farm—Highway 521. He slowed at the barn, and came dangerously close to stopping for a drink to quench a maddening thirst. “The need for water was beginning to drive me, but it almost seemed like someone was in the back seat telling me not to stop. It was like I could hear a voice saying, ‘Get to the road. Go now.’”

A half-mile later, Parker broke past a stretch of 40’-tall pines and pulled up at the end of the farm driveway beside Highway 521. Window down, he began waving at passing cars, but in disbelief, Parker watched as vehicles passed without stopping. Despite the elation of release from the picker just moments earlier, Parker was crashing from traumatic blood loss and overwhelmed by an engulfing weariness. In the chaos of escape he hadn’t attempted to stem the wound; the injured arm rested on the console and pumped away his lifeblood. “I never even looked at my arm, but the cab was filled with blood, even all over the inside of the windshield. Everywhere. The adrenaline was all gone, and all I could feel was pain.”

In a final push of will, Parker drove his truck into the middle of the highway, perpendicular to oncoming two-lane traffic, and put the vehicle in park. Salvation or death, he placed all his remaining chips in the center of 521, turned the air conditioner on full-blast, and reclined the seat. Staring out the window, he prayed. “I said, ‘I’ve done all I could do and I’m in your hands, God.’ An older couple drove by and slowed in a long sedan—wife driving, husband in the passenger seat—and took a look at me. I’ll never forget his piercing blue eyes. They kept going.”

“I was leaned back in the seat and so tired. I thought I was going to die in the middle of the road, but that was OK because I’d made my peace with God, and my family would never have to find me in that burning picker.”

Parker closed his eyes, too weary to continue watching as vehicles drove around his truck and passed along the highway’s edge. The sound of tires crunching gravel on the shoulder of 521 was a pitiful requiem for a dying man. 

“A Little Help”

Draw a straight line on the map between Charlotte, N.C. and Columbia, S.C., and the path will cut directly through the tiny town of Kershaw. In 2007, Doug Spinks, a 36-year-old sergeant first class E7 with the South Carolina Army National Guard, worked at Fort Jackson in Columbia, and lived roughly an hour north, in Kershaw. In addition to his military role, Spinks was a member of the Kershaw Fire Department (KFD).

Over a decade later since the ordeal, Doug Spinks, right, who played the vital role of Samaritan on Highway 521, shares a silent bond and unstated rapport with Sampson Parker. Better than almost anyone, Spinks knows how hard Parker fought to survive. (Photo credit: Lee Ann Parker)

In early September, Spinks moved residences in Kershaw, dragging along the usual load of furniture and endless array of personal items—including a medical bag. On a late Sunday afternoon, Sept. 9, Spinks was unpacking boxes in a bedroom and repeatedly snagged his foot on the out-of-place medical bag. He looked down at the black bag that hadn’t seen any form of action in five years of possession—not so much as a single Band-Aid of use. Impatiently, he snatched up the bag, walked outside to his Suburban, and tossed it in the back, assuming another five years of dormancy was in order. Less than 48 hours later, he found Sampson Parker.

As part of his firefighting duties, Spinks was committed to Tuesday evening training sessions at the station. On the morning of Sept. 11, the KFD training officer ran into computer issues and called Spinks for assistance. Spinks left work at Fort Jackson in mid-afternoon, intent on troubleshooting to help set up the training session. “I was on my way up 521, between Kershaw and a little town called Camden, and we’re talking about a very rural, two-lane area, where a lot of pockets don’t even have cell service.”

Just off the road, Spinks noted a white pickup truck and a slumped driver with an arm raised. “All I could see was a little of his upper torso, but this was no ‘hello’ wave, and I’d describe it more like a ‘frantic’ wave. I wasn’t sure if he was outta gas or what, but I decided to turn back. I could see cars and tractor trailers driving on by and it turns out nobody even called 911.”

Spinks slowed and waited for a turnaround spot, apprehension building as he questioned the motivation of the distressed driver waving from the white truck. Navigating a few bends and curves, Spinks found a side road, reversed course, and drove back south on 521. By the time he reached the truck, it was positioned across the center stripes, blocking both lanes of traffic. Spinks parked parallel, noticing what he assumed was red mud splashed over the side of the white vehicle, and opened the driver’s door: “Hey buddy, you OK?”

Parker opened his eyes, turned his head and nudged at the door with his foot. After a two-hour descent into survival hell, severely dehydrated, surrounded by a nightmarish amount of blood, suffering severe burns, and holding what was left of his severed right arm, Parker responded with subtlety for the ages: “I think I need a little help.”

Eternal Eight Minutes

Spinks checked up for an instant, allowing his mind to catch up with the horror before his eyes. “I stood there and saw his arm and it took a second to register in my brain that it was gone and I needed to act. I snapped back and started rocking-n-rolling.”

He dashed to the Suburban, grabbed the providentially placed medical bag, and ran back to the truck, climbing in via the passenger door, simultaneously calling for an ambulance. In the moment, blood loss was Spinks’ only concern. “I didn’t focus on the burns because of the severity of the arm wound and blood loss. He looked like he came straight from a war movie, like he walked right out of battle. The inside of the cab was filled with unreal amounts of blood, to the point where you could almost taste copper in the air. By this time, he wasn’t even bleeding so heavily anymore because he’d almost bled out.”

Spinks applied both trauma dressings contained in the bag, yet the pair was soaked within minutes. He improvised and tore open an emergency birth pregnancy kit, utilizing the sterile 3’-by-3’ pad meant for placement under mothers during childbirth. With Parker’s arm packed in the pad, Spinks had managed to staunch the blood flow.

Angel in a Grand Marquis

Karen Baker slowed her vehicle, eased along the shoulder, and stared hard at an F-150 parked incongruously across the highway. Assuming she’d witnessed the tail-end of a traffic accident, Baker drove a further 100 yards and turned around, bound for the white truck: “I came down the highway because God sent me down the road. Chance does not explain why I was there that day.”

Baker, 51, should have been at work as a surgical nurse in Columbia on the afternoon of Sept. 11. Instead, she kept an appointment for a personal visit at a medical clinic in Camden, and following the checkup, headed for home in Kershaw in a white Mercury Grand Marquis, rolling north on 521.

“I went back that day because that’s the nurse in me. Here’s somebody in a wreck in the middle of the road and nobody appeared to be stopping or helping him,” Baker recalls. “I spotted Doug Spinks and asked if I could help. I was on the driver’s side and saw that Sampson’s arm was gone. Honestly, for one brief second, I almost had a heart attack because everything was so ghastly. But being in medicine, you push away fear and do what needs to get done. There’s plenty of time to get scared later.”

As Parker repeatedly asked for water, Baker dripped moisture from a wet rag over his face, but held tight to her medical training, and stopped short of allowing him to drink: “With his terrible condition, I knew he was going directly to surgery. Water would complicate things and they’d have to intubate him at the hospital.”

Assisting Spinks with bandages, Baker recognized extreme blood loss had narrowed Parker’s survival window to minutes—possibly seconds. After a career spent handling medical emergencies of all types, she was shocked to see Parker cling to life. “It was amazing. This was help from the Lord, and I know that because I was there. I’ll never, never forget how calm and settled Sampson was. He shouldn’t have been able to live with that much blood loss. Incredible.”

While Spinks and Baker waited for the whine of an ambulance siren, they peppered Parker with questions, anxious to keep him awake. “Sampson was sweating profusely and his skin was ashy colored, almost going gray,” Spinks describes. “He would open his eyes and look at me when I spoke directly to him, but if I stopped talking, he’d close them and fade with his head down. I’m sitting there watching a guy die right in front of me and I’m thinking, ‘I’ve done what I could do for this guy and it’s not going to be enough.’”

An eternal eight minutes after the dispatch call, an ambulance crew arrived on scene and prepared Parker for transport. As two EMTs administered aid in the rear of the ambulance, Spinks drove the vehicle to a waiting helicopter three miles north. As the chopper lifted, Parker was given a dose of morphine, ending two and a half hours of incessant agony. Standing on the edge of the improvised pad, Spinks watched the helicopter fly away: “All he told me was he got caught in the picker. Good Lord, I had no idea, until later, Sampson had just cut off his own arm.”

“Nothing Happened by Chance”

Despite surviving the picker ordeal, Parker faced months of intense recovery. In addition to the arm trauma, he suffered third-degree burns on several parts of his body, as well as fourth-degree burns on his right leg, starting just above the kneecap. Seven surgeries, skin grafts, and almost a month later, he was at home, backed by the steady hand of Lee Ann. “It was a tough road ahead, but Lee Ann nursed me back to health and kept me focused on the good. She was everything to me.”

“It was several months of tough recovery, but I had so much support from my family, friends and work.”

Sampson and Lee Ann Parker: “It was a tough road ahead, but Lee Ann nursed me back to health and kept me focused on the good. She was everything to me.” (Photo credit: Lee Ann Parker)

The central role in recovery, according to Parker and Lee Ann, was faith in God. “It brought us through the hardship,” Lee Ann describes. “It wasn’t so long for the physical wounds to heal, but it took so much time for all the repercussions to heal. Faith was No. 1, followed by leaning on friends and family. No one does it alone.”

“First and foremost, Sampson survived because of God’s unmerited and undeserved grace that he offers all of us,” Lee Ann continues. “Second, Sampson is a person raised to never give up, regardless of the circumstances.”

Twelve years after the accident, Sampson says the chain of events in the corn field defies all explanations except Providence. “Things happened out there I can’t explain by normal means. I believe if I hadn’t called out to God that day, I wouldn’t be here today. I was raised in church, but as an adult I watched my wife and son go to church, while I did my own thing. That day in the picker changed my world.”

The fault for the accident rests entirely on his own shoulders, insists Parker, and he offers a warning regarding complacency. “I’m not a hero. I’m the one that turned that corn picker on. I’m the one that stuck my hand in there. Maybe I thought I was invincible and that these things always happen to someone else. Just a split second of thinking like that is when you can slip. I want people to know this story first has a God part, and then a part that says accidents are waiting for anyone who thinks they know better.”

“I have no right arm and therefore I think about what happened every day, but I don’t dwell on it. I just remember how close I was to dying and I thank God each day for a second chance. I am blessed, truly blessed to be here.”

The John Deere pocketknife rests in a glass frame on the wall of the open Parker kitchen. (Photo credit: Lee Ann Parker)

Humble and self-effacing, Parker plays down the dogged tenacity and grit he displayed while fighting for his life. His story parallels the struggle of Aaron Ralston, who severed his arm with a pocketknife in 2003, after being trapped by a dislodged boulder in a Utah slot canyon. (Ralston’s account was featured in the 2010 film, 127 Hours.) But by its own merits, Parker’s incredible perseverance resulted in a uniquely phenomenal triumph of will.

Over a decade later, Spinks, who played the vital role of Samaritan on Highway 521, shares a silent bond and unstated rapport with Parker. Better than almost anyone, Spinks knows how hard Parker fought to survive. “This was a man’s man. I’d have died in that machine, but Sampson wasn’t giving up. When I’m an old man, I’ll still be telling people about his unbelievable will to live,” Spinks say, his voice low and his words packed with emotion.

As Spinks continues reflecting on the incident, he chokes up, and pauses to regain composure. “I look at Sampson and see a guy who had once had doubts about God. In the moment, he cried out to God for help and God heard him. Even in my little role, I wasn’t supposed to be on the highway at that time of day and I should never have been there. Nothing happened by chance that day. Nothing.”

How Far?

Following Parker’s extraction by the ambulance crew on Highway 521, firefighters arrived on scene and doused the machinery fire, saving the 2840 tractor. They found the remains of Parker’s forearm and three additional finger bones in the ashes below the picker, but no pocketknife. Weeks later, while friends harvested Parker’s corn, two young boys playing in the dirt made a most unlikely find 20 yards behind the fire site—the lockblade pocketknife—likely thrown the distance by the explosion of the burning tire.

“How could it be that on that Tuesday, I carried a knife in my pocket for the one time in my life?” asks Sampson Parker. (Photo credit: Lee Ann Parker)

The small knife remains a physical reminder and symbol of the extraordinary survival and transformation of Sampson Parker. “How could it be that on that Tuesday, I carried a knife in my pocket for the one time in my life?” Parker asks. “I never carried a knife before and I never carried a knife since. Only that day.”

The John Deere pocketknife rests in a glass frame on the wall of the open Parker kitchen—the central hub of the house. “We keep it prominently displayed in the area where we spend the most time with family and friends because it is a visual reminder of God’s grace,” Lee Ann says. “We give thanks every day Sampson is here, and take nothing for granted. Whenever we walk out the door, we pass the knife.”

How far will a man go to save his life and return to his family? Blood on dirt, fire on flesh, and steel on bone: The answer hangs on the wall of the Parker kitchen.

To read a complete account of the ordeal and aftermath, and obtain a copy of Unthinkable Choice, written by Sampson and Lee Ann Parker, visit

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