The fallen tree limb seemed to bring them all together that morning, the neighbors who didn’t really know each other near 45th and M streets.
Tim Houlihan had just returned from working — and working out — at the downtown YMCA when he saw the women gathered near a broken branch draped over a car.
All around them that mid-October morning, the air was filled with the cracking and creaking of trees, straining under more than 3 inches of heavy snow.
The 63-year-old crossed the street and joined the women, and together they pushed the big branch off. “We were just talking. We thought, ‘Hey, we did this, we accomplished this,’” Houlihan said. “It gave us a time to laugh, but we didn’t laugh too long.”
Houlihan talks loud and fast. But he pauses here, stopped by a blank spot in his memory. He doesn’t remember the tree splitting above him, the big limb falling from 30 feet up.
He does recall suddenly hearing voices, then wondering what he was doing on the ground. He remembers brushing snow from his glasses, and the ambulances arriving, and blood trickling out of his ear.
“It knocked me out but I didn’t know it,” he said. “It cold-cocked me that bad.”
The limb struck him and a 69-year-old neighbor, who suffered what police called at the time life-threatening injuries. Later, at the hospital, Houlihan learned the severity of his wounds — a concussion, back and neck vertebrae injuries and a left hip so smashed it couldn’t be repaired.
He also learned it could have been worse. “It wasn’t a complete hammer-nail hit, like a hammer — straight down. If it had done that, it would have killed me. But it hit me at a good enough angle that I lived.”
He spent nearly a dozen days in the hospital and a dozen more in rehab. The blow to his head made him nauseated and off-balance, the smashed hip required a replacement, and the back and neck injuries kept him immobilized.
He had to wear neck and back braces. He couldn’t walk, and for weeks, he could barely move.
And for Houlihan, that might have been the worst injury of all.
* * *
He’s been going to the downtown YMCA for nearly 50 years, when he used to sneak in as a teenager.
After high school, he took a job at O Street Carpet, but kept going to the Y, playing in basketball leagues, then taking up swimming, and then running, and then cycling.
“I’ve always been a Y guy,” he said. “I just love the Y. I love all the people there.”
In the 1990s, he competed in four Ironman Triathlons, traveling to British Columbia, Florida, Hawaii and Colorado to try to swim 2.4 miles, bike 112 miles and run 26.2 miles faster than the other competitors.
He stopped selling carpet a decade ago and took a part-time job as a morning lifeguard at the Y. When he wasn’t working, he was working out. He’d finish his shift, jump in the pool and swim more than 2 miles. Then he’d climb on his bike for another 40 or 50 miles.
And every week, he’d pedal a century — 100 miles — often riding to Beatrice and Filley and back.
He couldn’t stay still. He didn’t know how.
After the limb hit him, he had no choice.
“I had some dark periods there,” he said. “When life starts to take things away from you, that was like: Holy crap.”
* * *
His supervisor, Karla Hudson, saw him that snowy morning at the Y. She was shoveling snow outside and he was inside — working out as usual.
“Probably two hours later, I got a call from the Y: His sister had called and said Tim wouldn’t be working Monday morning, and that was absolutely unheard of.”
He’d never called in sick before, she said. In fact, they’d had to force him to take time off in the past.
But she still didn’t know the seriousness; if he couldn’t work Monday, maybe he’d return Tuesday? Then his co-workers visited him in the hospital, and they saw how badly he was injured.
Here was the man who could log three times the miles on his bicycle than his car annually, and here he was frozen in place.
“That was hard,” Hudson said. “That was a pretty hard couple of days, sitting on pins and needles.”
Houlihan made it through the dark times, with help. He and his sisters added it up, and figured about 200 people reached out by visiting and sending cards and showing support. Including his YMCA co-workers.
“He didn’t realize what a tight-knit family it was here,” Hudson said. “Not that you take it for granted, but you don’t realize how deep that is until you get to a moment of need.”
He was still using a walker when he hobbled into rehab. But his physical therapist, Jeff Maschka of St. Elizabeth Sports and Physical Therapy, had never met a patient like this.
He didn’t have to prod Houlihan. He had to rein him in. “Tim was probably one of the most motivated people I’ve ever worked with. He’d be telling me: ‘What are we going to do next? Let’s go, let’s go.’”
Soon, the walker was gone. Houlihan would be cleared to swim. And soon, bike again.
Maschka is convinced his patient’s level of fitness — all of those miles in the pool, all of those hours on his bike — helped in the healing.
“I think if it were me who got injured as bad as he did, I would have never recovered as much. Coming in as fit as he was was huge to help him out in the long run.”
Houlihan returned to South 45th Street in early December. He sees the broken tree daily, and it can still spook him, even now. But he hasn’t seen his injured neighbor yet. He’s heard she’s still recovering in rehab.
In January, Houlihan went back to the Y for the first time since the snowy day in mid-October.
“The day he walked in here, we were just dumbfounded,” Hudson said. “We couldn’t believe it; we’d seen him a couple of times through his recovery and he was rough — neck-braced, immobilized in bed.”
He didn’t plunge into the pool. Instead, he eased in, walked a couple of laps, just getting used to the water again.
It felt like a second chance. His best moment since his worst moment, months before.
“God,” he said. “That was a great day.”