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Deputy who lost legs stands tall in family; Just five months after tragic crash, Deputy Allen Gerhardt is boldly taking strides toward recuperation and a life fulfilled

For the Gerhardt family, what is under their tree this Christmas is much less important than the chance to stand together around it.

And stand has become a very powerful word.

"We have a lot to celebrate," said Tina Gerhardt as she sat beside her husband, Allen, a few days before Christmas in their Newfane home. "We are all together for Christmas and just happy to here."

Five months ago Allen Gerhardt, a Niagara County sheriff's deputy, lost his legs when his patrol cruiser went off the road and crashed into a guardrail in Ransomville as he chased a suspected drunken driver.

Just five months later, Gerhardt's smile was wide as he was able to walk to the door to greet visitors and stand up and shake hands or hug. He said he is even trying to run a bit in physical therapy as he learns how to move with two new artificial legs.

"I am just trying to stay on my legs and walk as much as I can and I've tried to stay physically fit and as mentally fit as I can," he said.

He said his fitness, as well as his family, has helped him stay on track as he has healed. Prior to the crash, the decorated Iraq War veteran had served for a year piloting a CH-47 Chinook helicopter as a member of the U.S. Army National Guard. As a deputy, he was running up to five miles a day.

"You take things for granted, but when you are in a wheelchair, it's a completely different world," he said.

"I'm walking now, but I will still need to be dependent on a wheelchair," he said, adding that he can't sleep or shower with the artificial legs.

>Details of crash blurry

Gerhardt said he remembers nothing about the July 18 crash.

It began with officers responding to a call about a man who hit a parked car on Youngstown-Lockport Road and drove off. A deputy stopped him at Youngstown-Lockport and Ransomville roads, but when the deputy approached the car, the man, later identified by police as Todd M. Hauser, got out and ran into the woods.

Gerhardt was among the deputies who responded to a call for assistance. As he was driving, he lost control of his patrol car just before 1:30 a.m., crashing sideways into a guardrail on Lake Road, severing his legs. Two other deputies who came to his aid applied tourniquets to his legs, probably saving his life.

"It's all jumbled," Gerhardt said. "The first thing I remember is waking up in the hospital, with tubes in my body and I pulled them out because I didn't know what was going on.

"I woke up and found out I didn't have any legs. It's frustrating not knowing what really happened. Our job is inherently dangerous. You have to drive at higher speeds. It's part of our job and we accept it."

Deputies Jonathan Andres and Shawn Grapes probably saved Gerhardt's life that night by quickly coming to his aid, tying tourniquets to stop the bleeding. He thanked them and other first responders, including Wilson and Ransomville fire departments and Mercy Flight.

"That's why I'm here," Gerhardt said. "My Christmas wish is to be here with my kids and watch them grow up. Anything else is a bonus."

Added his wife, Tina Gerhardt: "We will forever be grateful to them."

The driver, Hauser, has pleaded not guilty to a misdemeanor charges of DWI. He will not face any additional charges related to the crash.

But the Gerhardts are considering other options, including a civil lawsuit.

"We just want to let him know that he is responsible. Fleeing is an action that puts anyone driving at risk and he doesn't seem to have any remorse," said Tina Gerhardt.

"I don't want anything to do with him or his money," Gerhardt said. "If there was money we would give it to charity."

>Walking on new legs

Gerhardt said he got his new legs on Oct. 26 and was up and started walking as soon as possible.

"I started walking three weeks after I got my legs. Now, in the last couple weeks, I have been able to walk without a cane pretty well, though I still walk with one, just in case," Gerhardt said. "I ran on the treadmill a little bit, though that was a bit awkward."

The Gerhardts said they are in the process of retrofitting the house to make it handicapped accessible.

Gerhardt shows no hint of frustration, but merely a laugh as he explains the process of crawling upstairs on his bottom in order to use the shower.

"It's definitely not the end of the world. I never thought about it that way," Gerhardt said of the hurdles he now faces.

"I don't think I've ever had a bad day. I've had some bad moments, but not a lot. Definitely, that first day, I had to crawl up to the top of the stairs for a shower," he added, laughing again.

"My goals before were Mount Everest goals. Now it's a lot smaller hill, like getting to the top of the stairs," he said. "You've got to change your goals."

He said what he has misses most is the ability to do two of his favorite things: driving a car and piloting a helicopter.

But Gerhardt said he has already started to take driving classes to learn how to drive with hand controls and would like to get both cars retrofitted.

"I'd definitely would love to do what I did before the accident and I will try my best to get back," he said. "Some things you just can't get back to, but I will try my best."

>Support overwhelming

The Gerhardt children, Tyler age 15, Jorden, 9, and Madison, 4, have already adopted the family's positive attitude.

"One of the only things I want for Christmas is for Dad to be happy," Jorden said.

"I want them to put his old legs back on," piped up Madison.

"You know they can't do that until the future," Jorden told his little sister. Then he thought about his own future, suggesting that he might be an inventor when he grows up.

Gerhardt has been overwhelmed with the support he has received from what he called the "brotherhood" of law enforcement. People reached out to hold benefits and help from all over the state. He said the Buffalo Police Department was especially generous in helping his family while he was recovering in Erie County Medical Center. Also, the Rochester Police Department will be honoring him at its policeman's ball next month.

Tina Gerhardt, a nurse at Medina Memorial Hospital, said her union wanted to get presents for her children but the family gratefully declined.

"There are families out there who need it more than we do," she said. "We are just happy we are together. My kids won't go without. They won't notice if there are few less presents under the tree.

"One thing we learned," she added, "is that you must take advantage of the time you have, because it is so precious. Before we were so busy. Now we have more time together and with the kids."

Her husband has found one more silver lining from this experience.

"I have young ones and if they see me give up, then that's about the worst thing I could do," Gerhardt said. "Maybe they can use me for an inspiration when they get older."

email: nfischer@buffnews.com