How far I fell, I don’t know to this day. Every newspaper article written about Tanque Verde Falls since that day, including the ones about me, cites a different footage. You’d think after 40 plus deaths, someone would have taken a measuring device there to confirm the height of that waterfall. That many deaths warrant at least that. Some said it was 50 feet, others speculated up to 120. The US Forrest Service states between 80 and 100 feet.
All I know is what friends, strangers, the search and rescue team, the media and a couple who were picnicking below the falls told my parents. I was lucky. The young man at the bottom of the falls saw me hit the pool below, jumped in and pulled me to the surface. He and his fiancé held me in their arms, keeping me afloat. I heard later that most people don’t hike up from that canyon floor It’s too difficult. Most begin from the top. Thankfully, these two Californians had.
They floated me on my back for over two hours waiting for the rescue team to show up. I could hear my friends panicked voices from above the falls, but I couldn’t respond. “She has blood coming out of her head!” “She’s got blood coming out of her ear.” “She’s bleeding out of her mouth.” “Her chin looks messed up,” and worst of all, “She’s dead, Oh God, she’s dead!” I knew I wasn’t dead. I could hear them.
I heard people shouting for help. My friends were screaming from above the falls. I wondered what the fuss was about because I felt no pain. I learned later that a helicopter had tried to reach the area, but the narrow canyon was too dangerous for that. Instead, a Search and Rescue team hiked down and tied me into a stretcher, pulling me up with a rope and out of the canyon. By the time they got me to the road, an ambulance was waiting. The TV crews, newspaper reporters and many voices all sounded like an off-key orchestra. My only thought was, “Oh crap! My parents will get home before I do”.
The rest of that afternoon was a blur. At times, I knew where I was and then I didn’t. I felt every bump on the road to the Tucson Medical Center, as the ambulance rushed me to the E.R. The hospital staff was asking questions I could’nt answer. They called the base commander to come to the hospital and give permission to treat me. I needed blood. I needed a lot. I was underage. Someone had to sign permission forms to let them patch me back together. My parents couldn’t be reached. They were still in Oracle, thinking I was at home ironing. They were busy praising my younger brother for earning his Boy Scout patches. Personally, I think I got more patches that day than he did!
I opened my eyes when the emergency room nurse approached me with a pair of scissors in her hand. She started to snip away at my new burgundy top. I begged and pleaded for her to stop, but she won. She cut right up the middle of my top, my bra and then dismembered my cut-offs into shreds of denim. She could have aimed for the seams, making my top repairable, but she seemed in a hurry to get me naked.
Next came a catheter, IV’s, needles, and off to get X-rays. This was the first real pain I felt all afternoon. The X-ray table was cold and hard as steel. The technician positioned me into unbearable contortions. That cold table singed my skin like dry ice. I could feel my bruises and fractures coming to life. He snapped an album’s worth of x-ray film.
Then I cried.
Once my photo session was over, they wheeled me back to a holding room. I just lay there, in too much pain to think.
Hours later, still drifting in and out of a haze, I saw my parents standing over my bed. I was sure my mother was frosted about the ironing and that my Dad was livid about joyriding in his Rambler. Instead, I saw only fear in their eyes. Their voices were gentle. They tried to touch me but couldn’t find places on my body not broken or deeply bruised.
I thought that this wasn’t so bad after all. They weren’t yelling.
Iternists, nurses and surgeons specializing in orthopedic and neurological traumas came and went. I was getting very hungry. “No food,” they said. How rude I thought. My chin had been cut wide open, wrapped in temporary bandages to keep it from bleeding. A plastic surgeon showed up next to stitch me up. The slice ran across my chin, resembling the edge of a jagged rock I must have hit.
By late evening, I was transferred to a double room. It was the first time people weren’t hovering over me wrapping, poking, sewing, or adjusting new tubes that were inserted into various parts of my body. I wanted to talk to my friend Janis, but couldn’t reach the phone. My new roommate, an older woman, graciously came to my side of the room, put the phone on my bed and placed the headpiece to my left ear. I told her the number and she dialed. I couldn’t hear the phone ringing. We tried again and again. She put the phone to her ear and assured me that someone was on the other end. I panicked and quickly pushed the red button for the nurse. She was there within moments trying to calm me down. “I can’t hear out of this ear!” She left as quickly as she came and within a short time an ear specialist showed up with his equipment. He ran some tests. Once he was finished, he said nothing and left.
My roommate turned the television on for the late night news. I watched myself on the screen. The news anchor sounded solemn and the pictures seemed startling yet foreign. It all looked and sounded serious.
The next morning, the internist came in and gave me the news:
Loss of hearing in my left ear from trauma to the inner and middle ear, brain injury, and bone fractures from my head to my feet, including shoulder, ribs, hips and toes. Oddly enough, my bruises hurt the most.
I had no idea what all of this meant except that I was told I wouldn’t be leaving the hospital bed for some time. My world was reduced to traction, bedpans, and lousy hospital food.
After nearly four weeks I was discharged with a walker, and instructed to stay in bed. School was starting and my life had changed.
I remember not looking forward to the proverbial “what did you do last summer” questions from my teachers.
I gently smoothed out the wrinkles of the front page before I tripled folded the newspaper back into its original shape. As I rolled the rubber band over the Daily Star to bundle it secure, I knew I didn’t need to read beyond the headlines. In Section B would be a description of a fine young man who once was, studded with names of those whose lives would be now changed forever. The paper felt as light as ashes. Then the phone rang.