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Secretary of Commerce Crushed by Horse, Dies

July 26, 1987|IMBERT MATTHEE and DON IRWIN | Times Staff Writers

WALNUT CREEK, Calif. — Commerce Secretary Malcolm Baldrige, a prize-winning rodeo performer, died Saturday after a horse he was riding in a practice session reared back and fell on him. Baldrige, one of three remaining members of President Reagan's original 1981 Cabinet, was rushed by helicopter to a hospital here but died after 90 minutes of surgery.

Dr. Naran Patel, a trauma surgeon at John Muir Hospital, said the 64-year-old Baldrige died of cardiac arrest caused by extensive internal bleeding in the lower abdomen.

The accident occurred at 1:15 p.m. at a friend's ranch in Brentwood, about 20 miles to the northeast in Contra Costa County. Baldrige, who appeared in several professional rodeos each year, was getting ready to compete in the county fair's rodeo Saturday night with the ranch's owner, Jack Roddy, a longtime friend and roping partner.

A witness to the accident, cowboy Don Jesser, said he watched through a ranch house window as Baldrige and another cowboy practiced "teaming" on a calf.

Accident Described

Baldrige, an expert at roping the heels of a calf, successfully performed his specialty and then turned the rope loose, as is customary, said Jesser.

Jesser and other witnesses said that Baldrige then started reining in the horse, but the horse jerked backward, its front legs flying into the air, eventually toppling over and landing directly on Baldrige.

"I turned around and said to somebody, 'My God, a horse just went down on one of the cowboys,' " Jesser said. "I didn't know who it was."

Jesser said that he had seen cowboys thrown off by horses that either lurched forward or tripped, but had never seen a horse fall backward onto the rider.

The horse, which Jesser described as a well-trained, 1,250-pound thoroughbred, landed so hard that the saddle horn pushed Baldrige's belt buckle all the way to his backbone, doctors said later.

The horse was not injured.

Jesser said that several of the 10 to 15 people who were nearby ran to Baldrige, who was unconscious and not breathing. One of them, a volunteer firefighter, began administering first aid, but without success.

Within minutes, Dr. Bert D. Johnson, a friend of Baldrige's, arrived. He had come to practice his rodeo riding, Jesser said.

Johnson, a Stanford University gynecologist, joined the volunteer firefighter in administering cardiopulmonary resuscitation for about two minutes. Only then did Baldrige begin to breathe and regain consciousness, Jesser said.

Jesser and other witnesses said that Baldrige was moaning softly, asking to sit up, and not bleeding externally.

At the hospital, Baldrige was "coherent, he was having a great deal of difficulty breathing . . . he told us that he was in severe pain," said Dr. Bruce Baldwin, the hospital's director of emergency services.

Efforts by Surgeons

Because his condition was so serious, Baldrige was rushed into surgery. However, despite the transfusion of more than 10 pints of blood, doctors could not stop the internal bleeding caused in part by tears in Baldrige's organs. Eventually Baldrige's blood system lost its ability to clot, doctors said.

Manual open-heart massage was tried to no avail when Baldrige's blood pressure dropped drastically. He was pronounced dead at 3:50 p.m.

Seven hours after the accident, at the Contra Costa County fairground's rodeo arena, a riderless black horse was led around the arena at the start of the evening's events by Jack Cook, vice president of the Cowboy Hall of Fame, which made Baldrige a member in 1984.

The horse carried the boots and spurs Baldrige had worn earlier in the day.

Public address announcer Mel Lambert, in a breaking voice, told an audience of several hundred that Baldrige was born in the city, but learned to "ride and rope like a real cowboy."

Praise From President

In a statement issued by the White House, President Reagan praised Baldrige as a talented and dedicated public servant and a loyal member of his Cabinet whose common sense and wisdom were respected by all who knew him.

"Mac and I shared a special affinity for the West and I will greatly miss his friendship," the President said. "Nancy and I are truly saddened and extend our deepest sympathies to Midge (Baldrige's wife) and the Baldrige family. They will be in our thoughts and prayers in the time ahead."

The White House said arrangements for the return of Baldrige's body to Washington and his funeral were incomplete, pending decisions by his family.

The death of Baldrige is not likely to affect U.S. economic policy. Although his agency handled politically volatile issues--including the trade deficit and the sale of sophisticated U.S. technology to the Soviet bloc--Administration policy in such sensitive areas is formulated chiefly by the White House.

Moreover, Baldrige was not a high-profile official who took the lead in espousing Administration stands, choosing instead to concentrate on running his department, which he reportedly did with a firm hand.

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