At death’s door
by Yvette Tull
I have hiked Mount Kilimanjaro, Stella Point some 19,000 feet in below zero temperatures where your urine froze before it touched the ground — the final climb beginning at 11:30 p.m., after some tea and light refreshments, dressed in five layers on top, three on the bottom, rain proof outer, balaclava, thick ski gloves over thin inner gloves and chemical heat pads on hands and feet, woolen cap and headlamp.
I came away with a souvenir of slight frost bite to my toes and a face swollen at least three times its normal size.
I have rope/rock climbed to Victoria Peak, the highest mountain at a height of 3,675 feet and the second highest elevation in Belize, which rise abruptly from the lowlands, the jagged Cockscomb Mountains an impressive mass of rock that is visible from the coast.
I have traversed the Waitukubuli National Trail in Dominica: 14 segments, 115 miles, 82 rivers, seven waterfalls and 56 mountain passes all in seven days. I have walked through the Valley of Desolation to reach the Boiling Lake. I have ridden the zip line in Costa Rico, slid the natural waterfalls in Santa Domingo and enjoyed the rapids while white water rafting.
I have climbed the peaks of Ecuador and strolled amongst the protected life forms of the Galapagos Islands — Guadaloupe, Cuba, Blue Mountains of Jamaica, Machu Picchu in Peru.
On most of these adventures I was so tired and in so much pain I thought I would die. However, what I felt on those tours cannot compare to what I felt on Monday April 29, 2013 right here in my own backyard.
My decision to hike on that near fatal day was based on my determine nature — never wanting to say I should have or could have but that I did it. The hiking group had planned a dry run for the forthcoming hill challenge race schedule for Wednesday, May 1 and after little thought I decided I would do the dry run.
I had told my hiking group the day before, Sunday, that I was not hiking on Monday bank holiday but that I intended to enjoy my day off like other “normal” people. (Hikers tend to hike every possible opportunity, including bank holidays).
At around 6:30 a.m. the group set off from Haggatts in St. Andrew for the hills and ravines of St. Andrew and St. Joseph. We crossed a number of rivers which had risen as a result of the heavy downpours which started from the previous night.
Five of us were walking together enjoying the cool weather, and actually seeing the sights which are often flying by on our usual speedy Sunday morning hikes. At approximately 12:20 p.m., we were just beyond Isolation playing field in Haggatts, five to 10 minutes from the finish and the last river to cross, when everything went haywire.
The five of us had formed a human chain (join arms) to cross the final river. However, one person slipped and the chain broke. Two of us were caught in the rapidly flowing water but we both caught hold of a branch/bush about 10 feet away.
I was at the end of the chain and so was caught in the middle of the river where the water was flowing fastest. The pull of the water was too much for me to hold on as at this time my limbs were over extended — my arms from holding on and my feet from the pull of the water.
As I was slipping I shouted to the others that I was slipping, but before anyone could reach me the vine I was holding on to slipped completely out of my hand and I went tumbling down the river; often times totally submerged in the murky waters, over the rocks and under the low-lying branches.
Each time I grabbed hold of a branch it slipped away and I went under again and again. I was tired and weary from the constant tumbling and fighting to surface. Each time I surfaced I struggled to get on my back so I could lay float. I was conscious the whole time and was repeating a mantra to myself. “It got to stop; it got to stop flowing so fast”. Little did I know that I could have stopped in the sea.
I also remember what the swimming instructor always said: “If you get tired, just relax and lay float.” Another memory that came to me was the instruction given when we went white water rafting in Costa Rico: “If you fall out, get to the surface and lay float. Someone will pick you up.” I fell out on that trip.
At some point while floating down the river I came to the bridge in Lakes, and grab hold of something but again the water was too fast and strong and under and away I went again.
I think it was at this point that I thought about giving up. I was tired, taking in water even through my ears and struggling to surface. I started to say my prayers. I was so sure I was gone. I thought about my life. I thought about my “Princess Deeks” and “Sista” — what would they do without me? I am their rock and their prop. How could I leave them at this time! I thought about my Cuz, mom, dad other siblings and friends. I thought — this is not my time. And so, God gave me another chance and I took hold of it with all that I had and surfaced again.
I was floating along with my eyes closed, trying to catch my breath when I opened them to see I was pretty close to the river bank. I reached out and started grabbing again but missed quite a few opportunities.
I finally got hold of a clump of grass that held. I pulled myself to the bank and stood in the water for a few minutes still trying to breath. I then climb out of the river with great difficulty after slipping back in number times. I came out on a grass patch next to the gas station in Belleplaine and was able to see the road.
I took off my back pack, which I was wearing all that time, and slowly walked to the edge of the road and lay down. I was conscious enough to think — “if I could have swim I probably would have died today because fighting against the flow of the water would have tired me out more than I was”. I don’t think the strongest swimmer could have managed against the flow of the water.
Soon after I heard a vehicle and I raise myself up on all-fours trying to stop it but the guys just looked at me and continued on.
There were some guys further down the road having their drinks so I picked up my back pack and walked another 30 feet to where they were. I asked one of the guys to take me to Haggatts and he said they were not ready to leave yet. I guess at this stage fright was beginning to set in because I said in my mild-aggressive manner: “My man, I almost drown and I want a ride to Haggatts.” Then it was down on the ground again.
I think the guys realised something was not quite right because one of them came over and opened the flatbed of his truck and told me to get off the ground and get on the truck. He even got me something to put my head on.
A couple of minutes later — I’m not sure if I dozed off — I heard Jasmine shout: “We got her! We got her!”
She then climbed on to the truck and cleaned my face as much as possible all the while comforting me and thanking the Lord that I was alive. Someone had summoned the Belleplaine police and the ambulance when I fell into the river. I got up a little while later and went to the bathroom and then forced myself to throw up as much of the dirty water as I could. What came up was like the river, black and murky. Everything was black, the discharge from my eyes, everything I cough up and whatever was coming out of my ears.
The police took a statement of the incident and maybe about 15 minutes later the ambulance arrived. With the help of the female paramedic, I took the wet muddy clothes off in the ambulance. She then helped me to clean off as much of the dirt as possible with the paper used to line the beds before I put on the dry clothes.
At this stage I became very cold and trembled all the way to the hospital even with the heat turned up in the ambulance and two blankets covering me. I was also placed on oxygen while in transit to the hospital. The trembling continued during the night. I was admitted and spent four days in hospital on antibiotics and oxygen as I was feeling short of breath.
To the four others in the group with me at the time of the incident, I say a heartfelt thank you.
To Raphy, who raced along the river bank shouting my name trying to catch me, you will always be my “G”. To Jasmine, a great comfort and one who was willing to jump in after me, words cannot express my gratitude. To Gracie, who also raced along the bank, I thank you, and to Juel, who had the presence of mind to race to the finish in order to notify and get help from the others, I say thank you.
To Ryan, a St. Andrew resident and to all other hikers who came out to join the search, and offered their support thereafter, thank you. To Mark my swim buddy, your instructions did not fall on deaf ears, I did not panic, but relaxed and lay afloat every opportunity I got.
To all well-wishers, thank you for expressing your concern by telephone calls, visits in the hospital or just asking after my well-being. Thank you!
This experience was not one where I thought I would die, like on my tours/adventures, but one where I thought I was dead. One where I looked death directly in the face, where death had me in its arms but God decided it was not my time.
I was later told that I was washed about three quarters of a mile down the river and that I was fortunate to get out when I did as the water was rushing out to sea.
I am indeed very happy and fortunate to be here to tell my story.
I have since hiked from Haggatts on May 19 and I will definitely be walking that river bed from where I fell in to the point I got out.
* Yvette Tull is an Administrative Assistant in the Department of Government, Sociology and Social Work at the Cave Hill Campus of the UWI.