Before dawn on March 28, 2021, Will Yates and his co-workers from Mississippi Department of Transportation left the Winona office to Highway 35 in Attala County to clear debris left by a severe thunderstorm from the roadway.
Yates remembers a light rain falling in the pre-dawn hours as he headed southbound on Highway 35. On the darkened roadway near the Carmack community, a tree had blown down across the asphalt. At around 6 a.m., he stopped his truck, with his warning lights flashing in the darkness, and contacted his co-workers, who were a couple of miles behind him, to alert them of the tree. Then he got out of the truck to begin cutting the tree for removal.
“I remember getting out of the truck,” Yates said. “And I remember cranking the chainsaw. I don’t remember anything else.”
He doesn’t remember a Ford pickup truck heading eastbound and striking the tree in the road. He doesn’t remember being thrown 50 yards into the air before landing onto the road with life-threatening injuries.
“From the truck to where I was found, it was 50 yards,” Yates said, describing eyewitness accounts of the accident. “I came out of my boots, and the chainsaw was still running.”
Sister Amanda Cirilo added, “If he would hadn’t have landed on his side, he would have drown in his own blood.”
He doesn’t remember the people who stopped to help him until paramedics arrived.
“There was a woman [at the scene] who had a blanket and covered him up and put [a blanket] under his head,” Cirilo said. “She prevented him from going into shock.”
Yates added, “I wish I knew who she was.”
He doesn’t remember being flown to University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson where he underwent several operations and was placed in a medical induced coma.
He doesn’t remember any of the events that occurred that fateful Sunday morning – events that would alter his life forever.
“If I’d have died, I wouldn’t have known it,” Yates said.
Yates suffered several serious injuries in the accident including a head injury, a hairline fracture to the skull, a neck injury, a shattered right wrist, broken ribs, a compound fracture of his right femur, a compound fracture to his left tibia, a shattered left foot, and a dislocated and shattered left knee.
“The biggest concern at the time was the head injury,” said wife Trina Yates. “They placed him in a medical induced coma to try to relieve the swelling. They put a bolt in it to relieve the pressure.”
Shortly after his arrive in Jackson, Yates underwent surgery to stabilize the injuries to his legs, however, less than 24 hours later, doctors determined they could not save his left leg, and it was amputated just above the knee.
“They tried everything to save his left leg,” Trina Yates said.
For more than two weeks, Yates was unconscious and on a ventilator. However, the medical personnel continued their work in repairing the extensive damage to his body, with multiple surgeries including one to reattach the fingertips of his left hand.
Trina and his mother, Timma “Tinkerbell” Lindsey, remained in Jackson the entire time, although due to COVID-19 protocols, they were not allowed inside the hospital except for the daily visitation where one person could visit. They spent the nights at a nearby hotel and days on the grounds of the hospital.
“Most days, we just sat in the parking lot waiting for the doctors to call,” Trina Yates said.
Cirilo “held down the fort” in Winona, looking after her two nieces, Morgan and MaKayla, and her grandfather, Bernard Yates.
After 16 days, doctors brought Yates out of the medical induced coma. When Trina tried to explain what happened to him, Yates became agitated and was sedated once again. The next day, Yates awaken once again.
“He was completely in denial,” Trina Yates said. “When I told him about the accident and [about losing] his leg, he tried to go home. They had to tie him to the bed.”
Yates explained that in his mind he was out clearing trees from the roadway and the next he was in the intensive care unit.
“I didn’t believe [Trina] when she told me about my leg,” Yates said. “I figured it out when I tried to get out of the bed and hit the floor.”
That wasn’t the last time Yates tried to get out of the bed on his own. He said he caused quite a panic at the hospital when he decided to venture out of bed to get a drink of water.
“He got me in trouble, because I was staying with him that night,” Trina Yates said.
“I was just getting a drink of water,” Yates said.
In mid-April, Yates was moved to a rehabilitation center where he began working on regaining his mobility. Determined to make progress quickly, Yates pushed himself through physical therapy and was released to go home several days before schedule.
On May 1, Yates came home to Winona. He was met by his daughters, who had not seen him since the evening of March 27, and family and friends. Since then, he has continued his physical therapy at Hometown Fitness in Winona. He was fitted for a prosthetic leg, and he continues working to regain full mobility.
He went from a walker to crutches to a cane, which he continues to use for stability as he gets around. His right leg also continues to heal from a fracture of his femur. The break in the bone has not yet fused, and a metal rod is keeping the bone together.
“My pain is different every day,” Yates said.
He explained that although his left leg was amputated, most of his pain comes from the limb that is no longer there.
He has also been working to overcome Post Traumatic Stress Disorder due to the accident. Although he can’t remember what happened to him on Highway 35 last March, his anxiety flares during thunderstorms or while he is watching certain programs on television.
His most challenging issue in recovery has been the break in his usually hectic life. Prior to the accident, Yates not only worked for Mississippi Department of Transportation, but he also owns his own lawn care company. He worked part-time as a reserve deputy at both the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Department and the Carroll County Sheriff’s Department, and he worked weekends as a cook at Guy’s Fish and Steakhouse in Vaiden. In addition, during the hunting season, he worked as a meat processor, with plans to open his own processing business.
“The hardest thing was learning how to slow down because [before the accident] I didn’t have a lot of free time,” Yates said.
Trina Yates added, “He really doesn’t like sitting still.”
However, he has enjoyed the time he has be able to spend with his family.
“Being home with my girls is the most important,” Yates said.
That doesn’t mean Yates isn’t ready to get back to work.
“I like being out there with my guys [at MDOT],” Yates said. “Work is like my second family. I work with them 40-plus hours a week and see them more than my family.”
He also misses mowing yards, but his employees have picked up the slack. Last spring, after he was injured, other local lawn care providers kept his business going.
“Craig Britt and Jill and Jerry Yates were cutting yards for me and trying to keep my business up,” Yates said. “I can’t thank them enough.”
Yates also thanked everyone in the community for rallying behind him and his family after he was hurt.
“We want to thank everyone for everything they have done,” Yates said.
Cirilo said she was amazed by the outpouring of support her brother and his family received after the accident.
“People were walking up to me on the street and giving me money for them,” she said. “So I created the Will Yates Benefit account at the Bank of Winona.”
Yates said in addition to individuals from the community bringing food and supplies to the family, Cloud 9 in Grenada, The Hub in Winona, Carrollton Nutrition, J&S Pawn in Winona, Allan and Corey Johnson, SuperValu, Pizza Inn, and Praise Apostolic Tabernacle organized fundraising efforts to assist the family as they navigated through Yates’ recovery journey.
“They really came together for us,” he said.
In reflecting on everything that has happened over the last seven months, Yates is still perplexed by what happened that morning in March.
“I never thought that I’d be taken down like that,” Yates said. “I guess it picked who it needed to be.”
He explained that he felt his body could take the impact of the accident better than some of his co-workers, and he was glad it had happened to him rather than someone else.
“He has always had a protective nature,” Cirilo said. “Always trying to help someone else.”
“I always look after my guys,” Yates said.
As for his recovery, Yates said he did not have the personality to let his injuries get the best of him, and he continues to improve every day.
“You have to push on,” he said. “You can’t let something like that win.”
He said God spared his life that morning for a reason.
“I was saved on the side of Highway 35 on a Sunday morning.”