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JR'S ACCIDENT
by John Roberts

Date: August 16, 1998 as retold shortly thereafter

Sunday everything was going fine. I was on a hike with Jennie Whited and Anna Marie Stefanick. We were going down Forney Ridge trail, about 10 minutes below Andrews Bald where we had just feasted on wild blueberries and blackberries. My left foot stepped on this very small log (no bark and very slippery) slanting slightly down towards the side of the trail. In an instant my foot slid down the log, my ankle twisted (I found out later it broke) and I crashed to the ground. The following is an account as best I remember (times and numbers could be off) of a well coordinated rescue by park service personnel from two different states. In addition it is a testimony of good judgment under fire and the tender, loving support of two hiking buddies, Jennie and Anna Marie.

When I hit the ground I did not feel pain but I had a numbing feeling in my lower leg. I thought that this would go away and in a few moments we would continue on our way; that is until I tried putting weight on the leg! The time was 8:30 am and as I lay back on the ground a very heavy rain started. It was obvious that I would not be able to hike out. Jennie and Anna Marie covered me with every bit of plastic and covering they could find ( I might add at considerable discomfort to them.) We had a cell phone and Anna Marie climbed up to Andrew's Bald (needed stronger signal) to call for help. The first help that arrived was a ranger, who was also a trained medical person. This was around 11:00 am.

During the 2.5 hours that we waited for help to arrive Jennie and Anna Marie were a tremendous help. Even in August with the rain, altitude, and the fact that I was laying on the trail in a heavy rain storm, hypothermia was a very real danger. I had episodes of uncontrollable shivering. While waiting for help to arrive they wrapped me well, including those space age blankets. I looked like a large baked potato covered with aluminum foil! They kept me well hydrated, gave me plenty of high energy foods, and gave me the support and comfort I needed.

The ranger who first arrived evaluated my medical condition, put a splint on my ankle, wrapped me with even more foil and then started coordinating the rescue effort. Plan (A) was to have horses come up the Bryson city side and have me ride out on a horse. This plan was not 100 percent secure due to the poor condition of the trail and very wet and slippery conditions. Another plan (B) was also started in case plan (A) did not work. Plan (B) was to have rescuers come down from Clingman's Dome and carry me out. Due to the difficulty and distance of the rescue, a relief team (rescue squad from Swain County NC) was also assembled. Plan (A) with the horse did not work out because they could not get any closer than 1.5 miles due to very dangerous trail conditions.

The first team arrived down from the Dome around 2:00. I was medicated and placed on this litter that had one wheel under its middle with a large wide tire on it. The rescuers put connecting straps over their shoulders and I was pulled, pushed and lifted 2 miles+ up the mountain. My view was limited because I was on my back looking up at the sky. But there is one impression I will never forget. As the rescuers rotated carrying positions and changed out to relieve each other, I saw the strain in each of their individual faces, heard their labored breathing, and felt their sweat dripping on me from their effort. We arrived at the Dome around 4:30. The trail conditions were not good and the rescuers put their own safety on the line. I was overwhelmed that these rescuers, more than 20 in number would leave their families on a Sunday afternoon and do this for me.

On arriving back at the Dome parking lot, I was greeted by the stares of curious tourists, and then though the crowd I saw the smiling faces of my hiking buddies, Jennie and Anna Marie. They took me to the Blount County Memorial hospital where my son was waiting to take me home after a visit to emergency room.

I now have a temporary cast on (swelling has to go down) and am using crutches. Wednesday I get fitted with a walking cast. Everything considered, I feel very lucky and have a deeper appreciation of the hazards of hiking.

My experience has taught me several valuable lessons. First: never hike alone. If this accident had happened when I was alone I hate to think about the outcome. The fact that Jennie and Anna Marie were there for me is the number one fact that enabled this story to have a happy ending. What they did for me I would do for them and we would do for each other. When we hike we need each other. The question is not if an accident will happen but when it will happen. The second lesson I learned is that one should be prepared for hypothermia even in the summer. The third lesson I learned is that a cellular phone can be a lifesaver. I know that they only work in the park at higher elevations but this flaw will be corrected as technology gets better.

In conclusion I owe a great deal to my hiking friends and to all those rescuers. It is comforting to know that when you are flat on your back, hurt on the trail, and unable to help yourself, that there are others there to literally lift you up and get you out of harm's way. I believe that God helps through the hands of others.