A run for his life

Scott Torgeson, who taught Keizer students for more than 30 years, is undergoing multiple surgeries after sustaining burns to 20 percent of his body.

After spending Labor Day kayaking on Detroit Lake with members of his family, former Clear Lake and Forest Ridge Elementary teacher Scott Torgeson was ready to head back to his home on the North Fork Santiam River to rest. 

It had been a difficult couple of months for the 72-year-old, who was recently widowed after his wife of 45 years, Vivienne, passed away in July of pancreatic cancer. 

Torgeson knew of the wildfires that were beginning to affect parts of eastern Marion County. With the fires still more than a dozen miles away, his plan was to sleep at his house that night, pack up some of his belongings and leave his residence in the morning.

One can only wish that his strategy would have gone according to plan. 

From mid-August to early-September the Beachie Creek Fire was a small wildfire slowly burning in an isolated part of the Opal Creek Wilderness. 

Then, in the span of one evening, it became one of the most destructive wildfires in the history of the state.

On the evening of Sept. 7, Torgeson had a phone conversation with his good friend Dave Guile. Their friendship dates back to their days working together at Clear Lake in the early 1980s.

Torgeson had told Guile of his plan to evacuate his residence the following day, saying that one of his concerns was that he had two cars at the property and he could only take one. Guile, who lives in Keizer, offered to have his wife drive him up to the North Fork house so he could come get Torgeson’s other vehicle. But Torgenson told his buddy not to worry about it and that he had good insurance if something had happened. 

Guile called later that night around 10:30 p.m. to check on his friend. When Torgeson didn’t respond, Guile assumed his buddy was packing up his belongings or had already fallen asleep.

“I wasn’t that worried about it at the time. I didn’t think there was any way the fire had already gotten there,” Guile said. 

By 11 p.m. the area was dark and smoky, but fire was not yet visible. By midnight, the Beachie Creek Fire was scorching down the French Creek drainage. 

A local sheriff was knocking on doors in the community around midnight, telling residents to evacuate their homes. Unfortunately Torgeson didn’t wake up until around 2:30 a.m. when he heard propane tanks exploding at his neighbor’s house — which was engulfed in flames. 

With no time to spare, Torgeson wasn’t able to grab any belongings. He just jumped in his Toyota RAV4 and attempted to flee from danger. 

Torgeson started driving towards Highway 22, but didn’t make it far. With awful visibility, he ran into a large tree that fell into the street. The car got stuck and Torgeson was unable to maneuver the vehicle out of harm’s way. Wearing just a t-shirt, shorts and Wal-Mart crocs, Torgeson elected to make a run for it.

Even though he has been retired for 15 years, Torgeson has continued to stay active. Years of playing basketball and going on hikes, among other activities, had unknowingly prepared him for survival. 

“He’s a really athletic guy. If anyone could have made it through, it was Scott,” Guile said. 

With fire blazing on both sides of the road and heavy winds blowing in his face, Torgeson had to hold his breath during parts of the run, hoping for gusts of clean air. 

Near Mile Post 4, he came across a woman, Angela Mosso, on the side of the road, telling Torgeson that she couldn’t go on. Mosso was at her home with her son and mother when the flames hit their house. Without the ability to drive out of danger, Mosso told her son to run for his life along with the family dog.

Mosso had been her mother’s caretaker for almost a decade. In order to survive, she was forced to leave her behind. 

When Torgeson came across Mosso, he told her that he would send help if he could. After continuing to run away from the fire, Torgeson flagged down a driver with a flatbed truck around 4 a.m. At that point, Torgeson’s arm was severely burned. 

Torgeson begged for a ride from the man, but then refused when he learned the man was going deeper into the flames. The man happened to be Mosso’s husband, Chris Tofte. 

Tofte was able to find his wife, who was in critical condition, then picked up Torgeson on his way back down the highway. Tofte stopped the car at the intersection of Highway 22 and North Fork Rd., where they waited for ambulances to arrive. 

Mosso took the first ambulance while Torgeson waited 20 minutes for the next one to arrive.

Tofte, however, was unable to track down his 13-year old son, Wyatt, who was found deceased in a car on the family property the following day. Family members believe that Wyatt was attempting to save his grandma. 

Just after midnight on Tuesday, Torgeson’s son, Erik received a text from his friend about the fires near Detroit. 

Erik began listening to the police scanner and tried frantically to call Torgeson’s cell phone.

After Erik contacted the sheriff to see if he could find any information on the whereabouts of his father, his hope began to dwindle. 

“I didn’t know what to do. With everything that had happened, I assumed that he had died,” Erik said.

At 5:38 a.m., Erik got a long awaited call from his dad’s phone. It was a paramedic on the other end, telling Erik that his dad was alive and being taken to the Emanuel Burn Center at Legacy Emanuel Medical center in Portland. 

Torgeson had burns on approximately 20% of his body, with severe burns on both his calves and one of his forearms. He has had two skin graft surgeries so far and will have a third one next week.

He will likely have to spend weeks, if not months, in the hospital recovering and will need further rehab care in the months to come. 

While Erik is relieved that his father survived — especially after losing his mother just months prior — he knew the medical bills would take a toll on his dad. Erik, along with his friends Chris Wilhelm and Jason Miles, created a GoFundMe page to try to get some financial support.

In less than a week’s time, Erik couldn’t believe the response that the campaign received. 

When you spend more than three decades in the classroom, you have the opportunity to have a substantial impact on a multitude of people’s lives.

Torgeson took advantage of that opportunity every day as an instructor.

“He was one of those teachers that enjoyed his job until his last day. Students adored him,” Forest Ridge teacher Sarah Koenig said. “Not one person would have a bad thing to say about him. He has touched so many lives in one way or another.”

Torgeson worked as a fifth grade teacher for more than 30 years at Clear Lake Elementary before spending his last four years at Forest Ridge Elementary — he retired in 2005.

When some of his former students, and their parents, heard about what happened, they immediately wanted to help.

As of Tuesday, Sept. 15, Torgeson’s GoFundMe page had raised just under $20,000 and more than 200 people had made donations.

“The page is blowing up. He has impacted so many lives. It’s unbelievable to see people who had him as a teacher in the ‘80s make huge donations and say that he was their favorite teacher ever. I don’t even remember my fifth grade teacher,” Erik said.

“He really knew how to inspire kids. Kids still wanted to have a relationship with him as adults. That is why the community is rallying around him,” Guile added.

Koenig has been teaching at Forest Ridge now for nearly 20 years. She credits Torgeson as the reason she stuck with being an educator.

“He was definitely my mentor. When he first retired, I had anxiety about returning to school,” Koenig said. “He knows what is best for kids and he legitimately cares about them. I know so many people that have such fond memories of him as a teacher.”

Over the years, Koenig got close with Torgeson’s wife, Vivienne, and described their romance like something from the movie The Notebook. On the night when Torgeson was fighting for his life, Koenig is convinced that he wasn’t alone in the battle.

“I believe that an angel was watching over him,” Koenig said.