It was a typical Wednesday afternoon.
Joel Gerber was working in the garage of his Solana Beach home. Like many times before, the woodworking hobbyist was using his lathe, a machine for shaping wood, metal or other material.
This time, however, something went wrong. And, thankfully, two Solana Beach postal workers stepped up to help.
“They’re heroes in my mind — I think anybody’s,” Gerber said.
With the garage door open, Gerber on Sept. 7 was sanding the inside of an 18-inch piece of wood he had previously hollowed out.
Due to the weakness of the wood, Gerber later discovered that it came loose from the lathe’s chuck, a part that holds the object in place. The wood then hit the lathe and sheared off a 20-millimeter steel bolt, which broke the hollow piece of wood in half. One half hit the floor, while the other half hit Gerber on the right side of his jaw and in his sternum.
“That’s what threw me through the air,” he said.
Gerber flew three or four feet through air, landing on his back and hitting his head on the concrete floor of his garage.
Postal workers Greg Wilder and Joe Meyer heard the incident, which they later said sounded like an explosion. Gerber said they immediately called 911 and ran to his side.
“I don’t remember any of that because when it happened, it knocked me unconscious,” Gerber said.
“They saw me unconscious, bleeding from the noise, the chin, the ear and the back of the head. There was a lot of blood from what I was told.”
Meyer retrieved Gerber’s wallet and cellphone from the home, which he gave to the paramedics once they arrived.
Gerber, who had been unconscious for seven minutes, was rushed to Scripps Green Hospital in La Jolla. A CT scan confirmed he was not hemorrhaging from his brain. His jaw, however, had been pushed into his ear.
Gerber received 35 stitches in his chin and another 25 or so stitches in the back of his head. That evening he underwent surgery to reconnect his jaw.
“I’m doing quite well,” Gerber said in a phone interview last week He noted that his wife, Judi, wasn’t at home at the time of the accident, but after she received the call, she quickly came to be by his side
“One thing sticks in my mind: I wouldn’t be alive but for these two postal employees.”
Now semi-retired, Gerber is a federal judge. He was appointed by the late President Ronald Reagan in 1984.
Gerber has been a woodworker for 30 years and has worked with a lathe for close to a decade. He often donates his wooden bowls and other objects to the Oceanside Museum of Art and other local charities.
Although Gerber had met both Wilder and Meyer before, his street is not on their typical route. Therefore, he has not yet had an opportunity to see them since his accident, but he did drop off personalized thank-you letters and gift certificates for the heroic duo at the Solana Beach Post Office.
“This is just a beautiful story where two civil servants saved somebody’s life — a citizen who they were serving,” Gerber said.