The front and driver's side of the truck were crushed. The hood of the truck had been shoved into the windshield.
The windshield was shattered and partially shoved inside the truck's cab. Inside the cab lay the driver, 18-year-old Clayton Ratliff, trapped by the dashboard that had been shoved forward.
There was blood -- a lot of blood. Among the first to arrive on the scene was Caleb Johns. Johns, a recent Dexter High School graduate, lived nearby north of Dudley and was on his way home when he spotted the wreckage a short distance from his home. He didn't hesitate to pull over and do what he could until emergency personnel arrived.
"I just leaned his head back and tried to control the bleeding," he remembers. There was a lot of blood."
A witness to the wreck said he saw the vehicle drift off the highway, and when it was just feet from entering the westbound lanes of traffic, it struck the bridge's guardrail, sending the truck and horse trailer down into the ditch under the overpass along Highway 60.
"Another few feet," the witness said at the scene, "and he would have hit the westbound traffic head-on."
Within moments, the Highway Patrol, Stoddard County Sheriff's Department, EMS, Dudley Fire Department, and Dexter Fire Department with its extrication team all converged on the scene. Within 15 minutes of the initial call for help, there was a beehive of activity under the overpass. Traffic was halted by sheriff's deputies along the highway until the driver could be pulled from the wreckage and airlifted from the scene.
One of the two horses in the trailer was dead. The other suffered some superficial wounds, but would survive. Once the victim was freed from the wreckage, the extrication team would eventually cut away the door of the Featherlite trailer to free the surviving horse, a 17-year-old gelding named Roper.
Unbeknownst to his rescuers, Clayton just weeks earlier had finished eighth in the nation in calf roping at the National High School Rodeo Finals. A total of 180 teams competed at the Rock Springs, Wyo.. Event.
But on the afternoon of Aug. 23, 2012, the future of Clayton Ratfiff's rodeo career was in serious doubt. He lay in the bottom of a steep ravine, unconscious, in thigh-deep water. One of his lifetime equine friends was dead. The second had superficial injuries and appeared stunned but safe. Caleb Johns had summoned his father. The two would load the horse in their trailer and take him to safety on their nearby farm.
When emergency responders arrived on the scene, they rushed down the ditch to find Ratliff trapped in the cab of the pickup. Shards of glass had exploded into the cab. Clayton's left leg and left arm were broken. He was bleeding from the head. Caleb Johns and a medic who also happened upon the scene turned over the rescue to trained personnel.
Within minutes after rescuers arrived, Clayton was extricated from the truck, placed on a stretcher and carried up the steep embankment to the waiting air evac unit. He was flown to a Cape Girardeau hospital for treatment. The job of the emergency responders was done.
Mike and Teresa Ratliff arrived at St. Francis Medical Center's emergency room that August afternoon to find their son alert and responsive. They were told there were no internal injuries and no brain damage. He did suffer breaks, however, in the left arm and leg. He spent the night in ICU for observation and then the next six days in the hospital in a private room. He was limited to movement and could not bear weight on the left side. Doctors were unable to cast his left arm for three weeks because of a severe open wound to the elbow.
Less than three months later, healing from his broken bones, Clayton is again competing in the rodeo arena. His recovery has amazed even his veteran physicians.
Most often when a wreck like the one involving Clayton Ratliff occurs, emergency responders don't hear of the eventual outcome. They only know they did their best in providing for the victim at the scene. Seldom are they allowed an opportunity to see the fruits of their labor -- but on Tuesday night, they were.
Emergency personnel who had a part in saving their son were invited by Mike and Teresa Ratliff to a Dexter restaurant to accept the family's gratitude in person.
"It was the call that every parent hopes they will never receive," said Teresa Ratliff recalling the August event, "but we know now that God was watching over our son."
"My wife and I want to thank you for all you did on Aug. 23rd," Mike Ratliff told responders gathered Tuesday night at Dexter BBQ. "We had a miracle happen after a tragedy. My son survived, and I want to thank all of you for all you did. What better time to thank you than here at Thanksgiving."
"A number of miracles took place that day," Clayton's father said.
The senior Ratliff referred to the appearance of Caleb Johns and the unidentified medic who first appeared on the scene. The couple also refers to the fact that several area supervisors happened to be in the area and responded to the call that August afternoon.
"Our son was in the best of hands," said Teresa Ratliff.
Also notable was the fact that due to the extreme summer drought, runoff in the ditch where the truck came to rest was about two feet high. The ditch usually runs significantly higher. Had it been at its normal height, water would likely have been in the cab of the truck where Clayton was trapped.
Clayton's memory of the wreck is not clear. He has no recollection of leaving the roadway. It probably will never be clear in his mind what caused the wreck that could have cost him his life.
What Clayton and his family do know is that when he was most in need of some "heavenly intervention," it came in the form of emergency responders. The Ratliff family believes that a series of small miracles took place on Aug. 23, the least of which was the treatment their son received in the moments that followed his tragic wreck. On Tuesday night, the Ratliffs expressed their sincere gratitude to the men and women who played a part in saving their son.
"We wanted to tell you how grateful we are," said an emotional Teresa Ratliff in addressing the responders. "We know that God played a vital role in taking care of our son that day. This Thanksgiving, we have more reason than ever to celebrate his goodness."
Clayton is, quite literally, "back in the saddle again." He began competing on the rodeo circuit in early November. The family credits the administrative staff and the Rodeo Team at Three Rivers College in Poplar Bluff with their understanding and encouragement through Clayton's healing process. He had only four days of college behind him when the wreck occurred. He will begin again at Three Rivers in January and once again step into his role on the team.
Clayton Ratliff concurs with the beliefs of his parents that there was a higher power watching over him on that August day. He nods in agreement and, with a timid smile, says, "God was with me."