How This Maine Firefighter Put His Life Back Together After Traumatic Fall
One moment, he was there. The next moment, he was gone.
It was a mid-life crisis in the truest sense of the term: one moment, 41-year-old Joe Almand was standing at the top of a cliff. The next moment, he was gone.
Up until that day in late July of 2022, Joe had been a firefighter for the town of Skowhegan in central Maine. Most of Skowhegan sits several dozen feet above the riverbank of the Kennebec River, which cuts a wide, deep path through the town.
Joe found himself at the top of that riverbank to retrieve a drone that had been lost by a videographer. It was the sort of good deed that came easily to the father of three — the kind of thing a firefighter in a small town is likely to do for a neighbor.
Joe remembers making his way through the bramble of trees at the edge of the bank. “It's just a sheer cliff,” he told Inside Edition Digital. “Something gave way, and I just went over.”
Joe doesn’t remember those moments of going over and plummeting two-dozen feet, of landing on his wrists, breaking them instantly. He doesn’t remember how he broke the bones in his face, or his ribs, and he doesn’t remember how a broken rib punctured one of his lungs.
He does remember his first reaction after regaining consciousness: “I think I got a bloody nose."
Meanwhile, a police officer who had been on scene called Joe’s colleagues at the Skowhegan Fire Department.
"’I don't know where Joe is!’"
Captain Rick Caldwell, recounted the conversation between the officer and the fire chief. "’Our Joe?’ ‘Yeah, your Joe. He was just here and now I can't hear him, I can't find him. I think he's fallen over the embankment.’"
With that, Caldwell and the other members of the FD mobilized to try to save their friend. “I can remember talking to myself, first thing was saying a prayer that Joe was going to be okay and that I'd make good decisions in helping him to get out,” Caldwell said.
The rescue was complicated. Caldwell had to rappel down the side of the bank to get to Joe. “My concern was that he might be paralyzed, but worse yet, bleeding out,” Caldwell said. “And I just remember telling myself what I preached to all the others, ‘Okay, stay calm, breathe and be a thinking firefighter.’”
When Caldwell reached the base of the cliff, he found his friend. “I got to Joe and I saw blood. I saw the blood coming out of his ears.”
As he started coming to, Joe began to yell, "Give me some fucking drugs!"
The team secured Joe in a sleeve, and rigged a system of ropes and pulleys to bring him up. Joe began to go into shock.
“We got him up, got him in the ambulance, felt like forever to me,” Caldwell admits.
Joe was sedated and taken by a Lifeflight of Maine helicopter to a hospital in Portland. His survival was not a certainty. “They weren't necessarily sure if I was going to make it. It was pretty bad,” he said.
But he did make it. Joe woke up two days later and ended up spending twelve days in the hospital. He gradually came to understand the extent of his injuries. The worst blow may have been the one delivered several weeks later by his neurologist, who told Joe that he could never again work as a firefighter.
Joe had escaped with his life. But as he recovered and recuperated from the accident, he had to figure out what to do with that life.
“Right from the get-go, he was positive about getting better,” Caldwell observed of his buddy. “Instead of pity party about it and feeling bad for himself, he said, ‘No, I'll do something else.’"
Inspiration came in the form of a joke. Joe was visiting a vacant storefront on Skowhegan’s main drag, Water Street. The property owner, a friend, wanted Joe’s opinion on what to do with the space, since the former firefighter had a background in construction. Joe recalls their conversation. “He jokingly said, he goes, ‘Well, what would you think about opening up a coffee shop?’”
Joe loved coffee, and he’d had a reputation in the firehouse as something of a cook. The idea took root. “We were driving down to my daughter's graduation and talking to my wife and I was like, well, shoot, I have this idea of a coffee shop. Why don't we just try that?… Let's go for it and give it a shot.”
It was an inspiration grounded in Skowhegan.
“I wanted to give this space in the community, in our downtown to have people to be able to gather and sit, enjoy coffee, have some light food. Because in our downtown, it's been a long time. There hasn't really been that kind of community space.”
Joe started talking with friends and family, “figuring out how to make this happen.”
He began raising money, and with the property owner’s blessing, started working on the space. That was at first no easy task, as he had limited use of his broken wrists. Gradually, the money grew and the space took shape. “I had a vision of what I wanted this place to look like,” Joe said, and “I could see it myself in my head, like the colors and the way all the woodwork and all that stuff was going to be.”
Caldwell said, “He wanted that little extra touch to make it just a little extra special, which Joe is, fits him perfectly.”
Over the months, Joe’s vision began to take on a physical form: walls went up, floors were laid down, then moulding and wainscoting, and before long, the kitchen, the espresso machine and furniture. Joe shared that there were “lots and lots of late nights trying to get everything lined up and ready to go.” A spring 2023 opening proved to be overly optimistic, but not the summer. On the last day of July, Joe’s Flat Iron Cafe opened its doors.
“It was awesome,” said the new proprietor. “The amount of people that came out on the first day, it was almost overwhelming.”
Months later, the cafe continues to serve up its lattes and baked goods and sandwiches and cups of regular joe. It’s also serving, as Joe intended, as a meeting spot for people in Skowhegan, a place for making community.
The quality of the coffee has something to do with its success, but Rick Caldwell thinks it’s Joe himself. “Joe is a great example of just being grateful and thankful for the little things and looking for the positive out of it and moving forward and trying to make something better of it. And he doesn't realize it, but so many other people, I think, benefited from his positive attitude.”
Joe does indeed radiate a good-natured positivity, and he credits that attitude for his recovery, for his ability to move on and do something completely different. He demurred before offering this piece of wisdom: “Don't give up. There's always something out there. Things can always get better. And on the other side of it, as friends and family or see somebody that's having a hard time, help them out, give them a hand, because we can all make each other better.”
Joe’s Flat Iron Cafe is open Monday through Saturday from 6:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., at 65 Water Street in downtown Skowhegan, Maine. Says Joe, "You can't miss us.”
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