Eric Hawkins’ 20-foot fall from a rock ledge in Catalina State Park felt “like a dream” at first. Then his body slammed against the tree stump rising from a pool in Romero Canyon. That’s when it hit the 17-year-old — he might die.
“I thought it was the end,” he recalled.
The life-threatening accident happened Monday, Dec. 20, six miles into a 13-mile overnight hiking trip. It was the first excursion Hawkins and his friends — Josh Petersen, 17; Josh’s sister, Elizabeth Petersen, 18; and Lauren Vidal, 19 — were making together into the canyon. All experienced hikers, the Oro Valley teens individually had explored many of the park’s trails more than a dozen times. Ultimately, last week’s trip was their most memorable.
Before heading out at 10:30 a.m., the athletic foursome had packed ample supplies, such as clothing, food and a GPS device, for their overnight trip. They also left a trail map of their intended route with their parents. Such preparedness would prove fortuitous just hours later.
Around 2:30 p.m., the teens took a “packs-off break” in order to explore the waterfalls about a mile upstream from Romero Pools. Eric was standing about five feet from a ledge when he lost his footing and began falling forward. He pushed back Josh, who was in danger of being caught in Eric’s forward momentum.
Despite his dreamlike state, Eric felt himself rotate a full 360 degrees before his back struck a tree trunk protruding six feet from a pool at the base of a waterfall. He landed in the water and, although shaken, discovered he could stand up slowly but safely out of the water on the same tree that had just fractured his vertebrae. Exhausted and in pain, he dragged himself onto a narrow rock ledge and waited for help.
The call nobody wants to get
Chris Petersen knew his kids were in trouble when he recognized the family’s emergency telephone code. The procedure — call, hang up, and then call back — had been established so the elder Petersen could distinguish important communications from casual calls while at work.
He dropped everything to answer and found out the kids had an accident while hiking. Initially, he thought Eric’s injury was minor, something an Advil could remedy. However, after the deluge of calls, the severity sunk in.
He told the girls to call 9-1-1 and then began a series of calls among the families and local search and rescue teams, who instructed the parents to meet at the Romero Pools trailhead. Armed with the kids’ trail map and GPS coordinates, rescue agencies could pinpoint the hikers’ location quickly. But there was one problem. An immediate response was delayed because many agencies already were occupied with a hiker rescue along the Bear Canyon Trail in Sabino Canyon. Other agencies were called in to assist.
Preparing to wait
While their parents waited at the trailhead, Josh, Elizabeth and Lauren used their hikers’ training to care for Eric. After watching Eric freefall into the canyon, Josh had sprinted over to the girls to give them the news. Elizabeth immediately called her father, then Lauren took over the communications, choosing text messages over calls in order to conserve her cell phone battery.
“I felt we had the right number, the four of us. I was glad Josh could be there with Eric and glad Lauren and I could bounce decisions off each other,” Elizabeth said.
Their first challenge was to get Josh down the narrow canyon to the small rock ledge where Eric laid. Tying together clothes, a lightweight sleeping bag and a tarp from their backpacks, they fashioned a “rope” that Josh used to use to walk down the steep canyon wall. He helped Eric change into dry clothes and wrapped him in the tarp and sleeping bag — an early Christmas present that Eric had unwrapped prior to their hike.
“Josh is a great friend for (climbing down into the canyon),” Eric said. “I was really happy to see him there.”
Josh positioned himself close to Eric, who laid precariously on the steep ledge just feet from the pool. He gathered up the supplies the girls had placed in plastic garbage bags to protect them from getting wet, then tossed down. Confident they had taken all the proper steps, the friends began their wait for help.
Around 7:30 p.m., a Blackhawk helicopter delivered the first responders about 1-1/2 miles from the accident site. The eight-person team was part of a multi-agency effort that included Golder Ranch Fire District, Southern Arizona Rescue Association, Northwest Fire Rescue District, Border Patrol and Department of Public Safety.
In the dark canyon, the sleek Blackhawk’s spotlight first spotted the girls at the top of the canyon, then the boys below.
“It was like a big dance trying to choreograph their efforts,” said Chris Petersen. “It was impressive, especially since there was another ongoing rescue.”
Night had fallen, and responders hesitated about attempting an airlift rescue in the dark within the narrow and steep canyon. They called down to Eric and Josh, asking questions about their health, and relaying the information to a doctor at the trailhead. After confirming the injured hiker was stable enough to survive the night, the responders made the joint decision to postpone the airlift until the morning. The helicopter lifted Elizabeth and Lauren from the top of the canyon to safety that night.
“These kids weren’t novice hikers. They were well-prepared and that lent to a better situation,” said John Sullivan, community services division chief with the Golder Ranch Fire District.
Around 3 a.m., Jason Bowman, a Southern Arizona Rescue Association volunteer, rappelled 500 feet into the canyon. He checked Eric’s vitals and, feeling secure the young hiker was resting comfortably, stayed with the boys throughout the night.
A good ending
With Bowman and Josh nearby, Eric rested while the lunar eclipse entertained overhead. The teens grabbed snippets of sleep until the rescue helicopter arrived around 7:30 the next morning.
Responders first placed Eric on a backboard, then airlifted him out of the canyon. It was his first helicopter ride and, days later, the quiet teen acknowledged with a smile that hovering 1,000 feet in the air was “pretty fun.” The helicopter returned for Josh 15 minutes later.
Once on solid ground, the responders placed Eric in an ambulance, which transported him to University Medical Center. Doctors determined he had fractured vertebrae and would have to wear a torso brace for up to eight weeks. He was released later that day.
The hikers appreciated the search and rescue teams for their efforts.
“There were more than 40 people who helped us. It’s hard to thank them all, but we wanted them to know we couldn’t have gotten out without them,” Josh said.
Undaunted, the teens plan to return to the trails. Remarkably, their experience last week has made them more confident with their survival abilities.
“It was an accident. These things happen to even the most experienced hikers,” Elizabeth noted.
“The best thing to remember is to always be prepared,” Eric, a Boy Scout, added. “Always work as a team, always hike with a cell phone or GPS.”
Their parents supported the teens’ decision to continue hiking by buying last-minute Christmas gifts — new climbing ropes.
Hikers’ safety tips
• It is best not to hike alone. If you do, be sure to let someone know where you are going and when you are expected back. The young hikers in this story provided rescue teams with a trail of their intended route and GPS coordinates, which enabled responders to find them readily.
• Know where you are going, and stay on the trails.
• Always pay attention to the weather before and during the hike.
• Always carry enough water and carbohydrate-rich snacks.
• Pace yourself; know your limits when it comes to fitness levels.
• Dress in layers to stay comfortable as the day heats up; bring a light jacket if you need protection from the cold.
• Use sunscreen.
• Carry these items in your pack: a flashlight, extra flashlight batteries, a whistle, a knife, a simple first-aid kit, a lighter, a cell phone and/or GPS device.
From Golder Ranch Fire District