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Sandie Rinaldo: Rick Hansen marks the 50th anniversary of his life-changing accident by visiting the scene

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WILLIAMS LAKE, B.C. -

I remember reporting on Rick Hansen’s Man in Motion Tour for CTV National News. It was 1986 and the wheelchair athlete-turned-advocate for those with physical disabilities impressed me with his drive and persistence. 

Over 26 arduous months, he propelled his wheelchair across 34 countries raising not just awareness for spinal cord injuries, but more than $26 million to start a foundation to help fund research. 

Rick Hansen lost the use of his legs in a truck accident on June 27,  1973 when he was just 15 years old; his spinal cord shattered beyond repair.

I’ve interviewed Rick several times over the years, but it wasn’t until we met up again in the spring of 2023 to record a segment for “Sandie Rinaldo’s 50/50”; fifty of my favourite interviews over the course of my 50 years at CTV, that Rick told me he was marking the 50th anniversary of the accident by visiting the place where his life had changed irrevocably.

He invited me to come along.

Rick has written about that day, but told me he had never stopped at the scene of the accident. It was just too painful. He wasn’t even exactly sure where it was. We actually pointed out the spot to him after a farmer down the road shared the information with CTV News. 

There were witnesses all those years ago and the story has become the stuff of legends, passed from one local resident to another and another.

As we talked near the side of the road, cars and trucks whizzed by, some taking the corner at such a fast speed, I couldn’t help thinking how easy it would be for one of them to lose control and careen off the road, exactly as it happened to Rick

He had been on a fishing trip with two buddies. His mother had been emphatic. Do not hitchhike. On that fateful day, a father of a friend had promised to drive the teens back to their hometown of Williams Lake in the interior of BC. After getting up early Rick ignored his mom’s warning and hitched a ride on the back of a pickup truck with his friend Don.

Along the way, Don asked to switch seats so he could lie down and sleep. Rick was perched atop a large toolbox when suddenly and without warning, the driver lost control of the vehicle as it rounded a corner.

The next thing Rick remembered was flying off the back of the truck and landing hard.

He had come crashing down on the toolbox.

Rick told me the moment happened in slow motion. It didn’t seem real.

It was real. Everyone else was relatively unscathed, but Rick couldn’t move his legs. He told me …“ I was just struggling. It was so bizarre how deep down inside it was this sense of I'm in trouble.”

Rick Hansen and Sandie Rinaldo talk about how he felt in the days and weeks following the accident.

At first he panicked, couldn’t breathe; then he got angry, lashing out at Don and the driver.

Most of all, as he waited two hours for the ambulance to arrive, he was furious at himself for not listening to his mother.

All he could think was how disappointed his parents, especially his mom, would be.

Several days later, after being transported from the local hospital to a facility near Vancouver, Rick got the devastating news. He would never walk again.

“When you're in a situation like that, you're overwhelmed, you're in shock, you're in disbelief, and you have this big, dark canvas of despair, right? ”

On the morning of the anniversary, as I watched Rick manoeuvre his wheelchair into position across the road from where his body had smashed down on the toolbox, I found myself anxious and concerned over how it would be for him to be there reliving the moment. 

I am supposed to be the dispassionate objective journalist, but I am also human and I knew this time of reflection would be extremely difficult for Rick. I gave him time to be alone with his thoughts, until he motioned, he was ready to talk.

Sandie Rinaldo interviewed Rick Hansen recently about marking the 50th anniversary of the accident.

The interview by the side of the road was powerful, emotional, and reflective.

It took time, patience and a great deal of soul searching for Rick to overcome the anger and selfpity he felt in the days and weeks following the accident. He made the decision to do something positive with his life. He put himself on a different path and hit the road.

Today, he says without regret, that his life has been enriched by the choices he made.

”How could I have ever imagined. Just one step at a time. One day at a time. Hope.”

You will learn a lot about the man in the one-hour documentary we are calling “Rick Hansen: Unbreakable. Fifty Years Later.”  I hope you will be inspired, as I am, to see how the research he has helped fund has changed the lives of others.

You can watch the CTV News Special on Dec. 2 at 7 p.m. EDT.

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