WINTHROP — Zach Steele awoke early on a cold November morning, on subway tracks near Fenway Park in Boston.

His shoes were gone. His wallet was missing. His black puffy jacket was ripped.

He couldn’t see out of his left eye, which was bloody and swollen shut, and he had no clue what had happened to him.

“It was like: ‘What the hell is going on?’ ” Steele said. “I think I passed out again. At least, I think that’s what happened, from my recollection.”

Steele had suffered a serious brain injury that soon would require surgery.

How he ended up on those tracks that night, with that particular injury, remains a mystery to him and his parents. He grew up in the Winthrop area and was in his fourth year at the Wentworth Institute of Technology in Boston, about a mile away from the subway tracks where he was found.

Based on what police and doctors have told the Steeles, they think he might have been mugged violently as he was walking home from a bar, then dumped on the tracks.

What’s clearer to the Steeles is the extent of their son’s injuries – a broken skull, an epidural brain bleed – and their relief that the outcome wasn’t worse.

During an interview last week at their home on Old Lewiston Road in Winthrop, his mother, Sandy Steele, recalled one of the first promising moments in the days after a Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority conductor found Zach Steele.

He was rushed in critical condition to a nearby hospital, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. A neurosurgeon removed a section of Steele’s skull to allow his brain to swell and cauterized an artery that had been severed in the fracture, according to the Steele family. For a time, he was on a ventilator.

“When they took the vent tube out, (Zach) couldn’t talk and he was frustrated,” his mother said. “They gave him a pen and a piece of paper, and the first thing he wrote was, ‘I didn’t die.’ I’ll tell you that as a parent, that just brought everything to focus. He remembered enough that he knew he might die, but he fought hard enough to not die, and I’m so thankful for that.”

DINNER, DRINKS AND THEN … A FOG

The year had been great for Zach Steele until that point. The 21-year-old was studying electromechanical engineering and receiving good grades. He had three semesters left in his five-year program, and he was excited about looking for jobs back in Maine.

Over the summer, he already had obtained working experience during an internship at an engineering firm in Hallowell. He also enjoyed tinkering with cars and finally had gotten a 1969 Buick Skylark to run after years of working on the convertible, despite his parents’ skepticism that he ever would.

On most weekends, Steele returned to Maine to watch his longtime girlfriend play field hockey for the University of Maine at Farmington.

But on the night of Nov. 10, a Friday, he stayed in Boston and went out with his friends, first watching a Celtics game on the television at a restaurant, then getting drinks. The last thing Steele remembers clearly from that night was entering a pub shortly after midnight and listening to a live band.

He next remembers coming to early Saturday morning on a section of tracks that was about 300 yards from the Fenway station of the MBTA subway system, commonly known as the T. The tracks were above ground, with fences on both sides.

FEAR HE MIGHT NOT SPEAK AGAIN

After he slipped out of consciousness that morning, the next couple of days passed in a fog. After his surgery on Saturday, his first clear memory was of Tuesday, when a hospital employee told him he might never speak again.

Recalling that interaction, Steele gestured at the left side of his head, which is visibly sunken after the section of skull was removed, and where his hair is starting to grow back after it was shaved for his surgery.

“They said this was the part of your brain that controls your speech and stuff,” he said. “They said that would be the hardest thing for me to recover.”

Even so, Steele has regained most of his ability to speak and perform many other tasks. He was released from the hospital after 12 days, with a protective helmet, painkillers and instructions to not run, jump or lift things.

He has lost some of his appetite and suffered a few bad headaches, he said. But Steele is also optimistic that he’ll recover and, in due course, return to his engineering work.

This coming week, he’ll go back to the hospital to receive some tests, including a CT scan and an MRI, and set a date for his next surgery. Doctors plan to replace the missing section of his skull with either a titanium plate or a special type of plastic that has been custom-made on a 3D printer, he said.

The announcement that he might not talk “was upsetting for a little bit,” Steele said. “Then just day after day, I kept getting better.”

Steele has puzzled over the events leading up to his injuries. He has struggled with the question of whether he was drunk when he left the bar, he said, but he doesn’t think alcohol ultimately played a role in causing the trauma to his head.

Zach Steele, center, has regained most of his ability to speak following the night of Nov. 10, where what began as a dinner outing with friends in Boston culminated with Steele lying the next morning on subway tracks. His Winthrop family is sure that the surgeries ahead will take a toll. What’s unknown is what exactly occurred that night, and whether it could be part of a series of attacks. Photo by Andy Molloy/Sun Journal

OTHERS MAY HAVE BEEN ATTACKED

He had about a half-dozen drinks over the course of five hours that Friday night, he said, and his memory is clear up until he and his friends arrived at Lansdowne, the pub where the band was playing. He questioned whether someone would have taken his wallet if he was found badly injured on the ground, and thought the rip on his jacket suggested that he may have been dragged along the ground.

“You can’t sustain that kind of injury from a fall,” said his mother, who used to work as a certified nursing assistant for the MaineGeneral Health system.

Police informed the Steele family that several other people might have been attacked in that part of Boston that night, according to Sandy Steele.

That, along with other details they picked up from police and other sources, has led the family to believe that someone might have struck Steele in the head with a blunt object before dragging him to the subway tracks and leaving with his wallet.

“Since I’ve been hurt, I’ve watched video after video of people getting hit, and they get smashed with hammers and bats and stuff,” Steele said. His injury “was on the left side (of his head), and if you’re right-handed, and you’re swinging something, if you’re swinging a bat, you’re going to be hit right there.”

“I think I either got into an argument with someone or something happened,” he continued. “I get hit. I get placed down on the T.”

MBTA Transit police didn’t respond to emailed requests for confirmation of whether Steele’s case was being investigated as a mugging or whether any similar wounds were reported that night.

At the same time, Steele said, the police seem to have limited information about what happened, and he is trying not to think too hard about it.

“After a while, I came to terms with, ‘You’re still alive. Just be happy,’ ” he said. “That’s been my trend for the last three weeks.”

GOFUNDME EFFORT RAISES $14,000

Besides being grateful that Steele wasn’t killed that night, his family also expressed appreciation to those who have come to their assistance since that November night.

The Wentworth Institute of Technology was helpful in making arrangements for him to take the spring semester off. His past boss at the firm in Hallowell, RLC Engineering, visited him in the hospital. Hospital employees helped Sandy Steele find a place to stay in Boston.

At the same time, more than $14,000 has been raised through an online fundraiser, on the website GoFundMe, for Steele’s medical costs.

“We can’t thank the friends and people in the community enough,” said his father, James Steele.

“You know you love your kids,” his mother added. “But you don’t realize how many other people love your kids and support you as a family. It’s really overwhelming.”

Sandy Steele also expressed appreciation that her son has persisted in his recovery, not letting it derail his career goals and retaining the sense of humor that he had before his injury.

She came home at one point after Zach Steele and his girlfriend had been making gingerbread men, she recalled, and he told his mother that he’d made “a cookie of myself.”

The cookie, which is still in a clear plastic bag in the family’s kitchen, features a bite taken out of the left side of its head.

“Through everything, from the moment he woke up at the hospital, his attitude has been so good and so positive,” she said. “That’s made it so easy.”

Charles Eichacker can be contacted at 621-5642 or at:

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