Tyler Johns hails from one of the biggest families in a sport invented in his hometown of Naples. Much of his adult life has been spent inside a swamp buggy.
He and his parents are staples of the “Mile-o-Mud” racetrack at Florida Sports Park in East Naples. Johns finished second in the buggy points standing this year. The only person better was his own mother, Lorrie, who won the season title.
All that could be over. Johns’ racing career might have been snatched away from him late Saturday by an airboat accident that severed part of his left arm.
As he recovers in a Miami-area hospital, where he’ll need at least two more surgeries on the arm, Johns isn’t thinking about swamp buggies. And the 32-year-old Naples native is in surprisingly good spirits for someone whose dream job might be over.
“We’re all just happy he’s here,” said Samantha Johns, Tyler’s wife. “So is he. For somebody sitting there in this situation, he’s been incredible.”
TRAGEDY IN THE SWAMP
Johns remains positive because the accident easily could have claimed his life. If it weren’t for an off-duty nurse who happened upon Johns’s airboat in the dark and vast Everglades, Lorrie Johns thinks her son would have bled to death in the swamp.
The incident happened around 11 p.m. Saturday, when Johns took out his personal airboat with his wife, 6-year-old daughter Rorie and some family friends. The boat got stuck, and Johns got out to push. When the boat got free, it slid into Johns and the large propeller severed his left arm just above the elbow.
Johns, who is right-handed, was flown to Kendall Regional Medical Center. Doctors performed surgery, but were unable to save his arm. Johns is scheduled to have another surgery Wednesday to further clean and fix the wound. He then will have plastic surgery to prepare the arm for a prosthetic.
Samantha Johns said her husband hasn’t talked about racing yet. Lorrie and Randy Johns haven’t discussed it with their son either.
That’s not what’s important right now.
“We’re all just so relieved,” Lorrie Johns said over the phone from the hospital. “We could have lost him.
“(Sunday) was a horrible Mother’s Day in the sense that Ty had a terrible accident. But I got the best gift there ever was. He’s alive.”
Still in the hospital for at least another week, Johns said through his wife that he wasn’t ready to talk to the media about the accident.
The Johns family, along with the Chessers, is one of the two biggest in swamp buggy racing, the sport created in Collier County in 1949. Since 2002, Tyler, Lorrie and Randy Johns have competed in just about every race at Florida Sports Park — there are three a year (fall, winter and spring) to decide an overall points champion.
Randy Johns bought two buggies from the Chessers in 2001. Tyler started racing that October, just months after graduating from Gulf Coast High School, where he was a wrestler.
In the 2005 Winter Classic, then 21-year-old Tyler Johns won his first Big Feature, then the crowning event in each race weekend. He went on to win four Big Features, including at the most recent Fall Classic in November.
Lorrie Johns gives thanks to Kandi Zielinski for saving her son’s life. A nurse in Miami, Zielinski was on another airboat Saturday that saw a distress signal coming from Johns’ boat.
Once Johns realized his arm had been cut off, the people on his boat began to panic. One of them lost his glasses. Without Johns to drive the boat, Lorrie Johns doubts anyone else would have found the way out of the Everglades in time.
When Zielinski arrived, she immediately created a tourniquet from a belt to stop the bleeding from Johns’ arm. The driver of the other boat led Johns’ party out of the swamp to a waiting ambulance.
Zielinski declined to be interviewed for this article.
“If Kandi had not shown up when she did, (Johns) definitely wouldn’t have survived,” Lorrie Johns said. “As far as I’m concerned, she showed up on wings like an angel from heaven.”
Lorrie Johns, who won her second Budweiser Cup Series title at April’s swamp buggy races, thinks someone else also was watching over her son Saturday.
This past Christmas Eve, Tyler’s sister, Lisa, died after battling depression for 15 years. Lorrie Johns said her son and daughter were close, and Tyler Johns did all he could to help his sister.
As Tyler was rushed through the swamp in the middle of the night and then to the hospital, Lorrie Johns thinks Lisa returned the favor.
“I think she was there,” Lorrie Johns said. “I spoke to her all along the (drive to the hospital). I asked her to be his guardian angel and look after him the entire way.”
LOVE AND SUPPORT
Johns, who works with his father as a contractor at Naples-based builder Phoenix Associates, does not have health insurance. Family friend Alyssa Blocker Reidy set up a page on crowdsourcing website GoFundMe to help pay for the medical bills.
Three hours after the GoFundMe page went live, $6,000 had been raised. Eight hours later, 93 people had contributed $13,115. The goal is $75,000.
“With how much his family has impacted the community and swamp buggy racing, I figured once (Johns’s) story got out everyone would want to give back to them,” Blocker Reidy said.
Blocker Reidy’s husband, Steve Reidy, went to Gulf Coast with Johns and the two remain best friends. The husband and wife have organized a benefit dinner for Johns for May 22 at the Florida Sports Park. The time and cost of the meal have not been determined.
Lorrie Johns isn’t surprised Tyler remains in such good spirits. She credits her son with helping her and Randy through difficult times after Lisa died. Tyler was strong enough for the whole family, Lorrie said.
From his hospital bed, Tyler has even joked that he’ll need a few different prosthetic hands — one for work, one for home and one for airboat driving. His wife and mother said Johns doesn’t need to be thinking about airboats right now.
In the face of another family tragedy, the Johnses are remaining hopefully and optimistic. And they haven’t ruled out the possibility that they can race together again some day.
“I really feel blessed,” Lorrie Johns said. “I feel weird saying that after such a horrible accident. I didn’t get that second chance with Lisa. She’s gone. I get that with Tyler.”