Monday, 24 June 2024

Young woman and her dog reunited following near-fatal June crash

Heather Anderson and her dog, McGruff, were separated for more than two months when a chance visit to a fire station helped reunite them. Photo courtesy of Diana Anderson.



LAKE COUNTY – A young local woman who was severely injured in a June crash recently had a happy reunion with one of her best friends.

Heather Anderson and her little wired hair rat terrier McGruff were reunited last month after a crash that nearly killed her and which also resulted in him being lost and on his own for weeks.

The story began when Anderson, who is a member of the Robinson Rancheria Pomo, was involved in a serious vehicle collision near the Wilbur Springs Fire Station on June 15.

Scott Ross, a Middletown resident and a Cal Fire firefighter stationed on Wilbur Springs, said the crash happened on Highway 20 west of the Wilbur Springs station on Highway 16.

He said a vehicle went over the side of the road, with three injuries resulting – one major, one moderate and one minor.

Anderson, who was living in the county at the time, was in a car driven by a friend that day, and McGruff was with her. They were headed to Red Bluff at around 8:30 a.m. when the driver lost control of the vehicle, with the brakes locking up and the vehicle going off a cliff.

The crash resulted in Anderson being ejected through the car's back window, and McGruff with her.

“I don't remember any of that,” she said, noting that she didn't fully wake up until weeks later.

Ross and fellow firefighters responded to the crash scene, where they cared for Anderson, who was later transported to Santa Rosa for medical care.

Anderson was so badly injured, Ross noted, “None of us there expected her to live.”

Indeed, her injuries were severe.

Diana Anderson, Heather's mother, said her daughter – the youngest of five daughters who also has two brothers – suffered extensive injuries, and for the first three weeks after the crash, they weren't sure she would live.

The young woman was on life support, with a breathing tube placed through a tracheotomy. Diana Anderson said her daughter sustained a broken neck, as well as breaks to her scapula, ribs on both sides, cervical, thoracic and lumbar spine, a broken pelvis in two places and a dislocated right hip. The contusions on her lungs had caused her to go into acute respiratory failure.

She also suffered a lacerated liver, kidney and spleen. Both bones in her lower left leg were broken – the tibia so badly that they inserted a metal rod from the knee to the ankle and screwed it in place to repair the fracture, Diana Anderson said.

The young woman's C4 vertebrae also was shattered in the front and had to be replaced with one from a cadaver, then her C3 through C5 vertebrae were fused together, with a titanium plate with screws in the front of her neck to hold the repair in place, Diana Anderson explained.

On top of that, the young woman also has suffered both short- and long-term memory loss, her mother said.

“There's a lot of stuff wrong with me,” Heather Anderson said.

Meanwhile, in the wake of the crash, little McGruff had gone missing.

Approximately two weeks after the crash, on the morning of June 29, a little dog in bad condition, his coat matted with stickers and a foxtail in his eye, showed up at the station. Ross said it took several hours before he would even approach the firefighters.

Later that day, the Rumsey Fire broke out, and Ross and his fellow firefighters responded.

Middletown's Cal Fire engine came over to cover their station, and when they returned the next day, the Middletown firefighters had bathed and groomed the little dog, removed his stickers and the fleas that were plaguing him, and even removed the foxtail from his eye.

The cover crew even took a sleeve off a shirt with a Cal fire logo, cut holes in it, and made the little dog a spiffy outfit.

“He was happy as a clam,” said Ross.

The Wilbur Springs firefighters kept the little dog – who they dubbed “Wilbur” – at the station with them for two weeks before their chief started dropping hints that maybe he should go to a new home.

Ross took the dog home to Middletown and tried to help him find the dog a new home for over a month. He had lots of interest in the cute little dog, but no one committed to take him home.

Anderson, who had been in the hospital for more than a month after the crash and was still unable to walk had, by that time, moved to Paradise to be with family while she recovered.

She was worried and upset about McGruff, who she hadn't seen since the crash. Her sisters had taken two trips to the area of the crash scene to look for him, but had been unsuccessful in finding any trace.

So she made flyers and on Aug. 18, with the approval of her mom, she and her sisters set off for a trip in her mom's car to Lake County to see if they could find the little dog.

The young women handed out flyers that day, but hadn't heard of a McGruff sighting.

With their last flyer in hand, they stopped at the Wilbur Springs Fire Station, where Anderson said her sisters stopped to ask if they could post the flyer.

Ross was at the firehouse when they drove up. One of the sisters explained to him the story, and Ross immediately realized that they were talking about the June 15 crash. Then, to his surprise, he saw Heather Anderson – who he thought might not make it – sitting in the car's front passenger seat, wearing a neck brace.

“We never find out if they're OK,” he said of the crash victims they help.

The next surprise Ross got was when he saw the flyer with the picture of the dog, who he instantly recognized as the dog that he'd known as Wilbur.

He told Anderson and her sisters that he knew where McGruff was. He gave them his home number and they called his wife from the nearest spot will cell reception to arrange to go and pick up the dog.

When Ross' wife got the call, she called McGruff by his real name, and he got so happy he started dancing in circles, Ross said.

The sisters went directly to Ross' home in Middletown. McGruff started barking when the family showed up. He went up to the sisters and then, when Heather Anderson – who was unable to get out of the car – called to McGruff, he jumped into the car and settled into her lap, where he stayed. When he went home, he got to take his goodies, including his Cal Fire shirt.

Since then, Anderson is back in Paradise with her family and McGruff, who turns 5 this November.

She's had McGruff since he was just a puppy, who her sisters found wandering as a stray in Chico.

Even though they were separated for a few months, they quickly got back to normal, Anderson said.

They go everywhere together, she said. “He's just like the old dog I left.”

She said she's also doing better, which her mother confirms.

Diana Anderson said her daughter is determined to be on her own as soon as she can, works hard in her therapy sessions and doesn't like to be a burden to anyone. She added that her youngest daughter has always been strong willed.

“Finding her dog McGruff has been the greatest healing for her,” she said.

Diana Anderson added that she's grateful to the “wonderful” firefighter who found her daughter and saved her life.

“Everyone who heard it just seems to think it's an amazing story,” said Ross.

E-mail Elizabeth Larson at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. . Follow Lake County News on Twitter at .

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