SEATTLE — The 13-year-old Burien boy who was rescued Sunday from a ledge just feet from 270-foot Wallace Falls said that he’s fortunate he walked away from the ordeal with little more than cuts and scrapes on his feet.
“I feel lucky I got through it all,” William Hickman said Monday from his home. “I think the rescuers should feel like heroes; they saved me. I’m lucky to be alive.”
The boy and his parents plan to thank his Snohomish County rescuers Monday afternoon during a news conference.
Hickman was on a hike around 5 p.m. Saturday with his family and a friend at Wallace Falls State Park, a popular hiking attraction northeast of Seattle, when he kicked off his shoes and waded into the chilly Wallace River to cool off. The water appeared calm in that section of the river, he said, but as soon as he got knee-deep he lost his footing.
“We planned on swimming that day, and it was pretty warm. I figured I would step in for a second to my knees, but I slipped in,” said Hickman, a seventh-grader at Sylvester Middle School in Burien. “It happened really fast.”
Hickman said the current carried him toward the falls. He recalls thinking about a young character who fell into a river in one of the “Pendragon Adventure” novels by author D.J. MacHale. The character knew to stay away from the middle of the river, where the current was strongest, and to let the water carry him feet-first.
Hickman went down the river feet-first, but he wasn’t able to swim to safety because the current was so strong.
He was carried over a small waterfall and was feet from two more waterfalls, the third being a 270-foot drop, when he wound up near a small rock overhang. Hickman said he was able to pull himself out of the water and clung to a narrow ledge.
The teen said his father threw him a towel, which he used to dry off. His father then threw him a dry T-shirt and his jacket, which Hickman wrapped around his bare legs.
Hickman’s mother, Heather Hickman, said her son cried when he realized the extent of his predicament. He thought he was going to die, she said.
The Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office, its corps of search-and-rescue volunteers and the Gold Bar Fire Department responded when the boy’s father called in the emergency on Saturday.
But there was no easy way to reach the stranded youth.
His perch was across the river from the trail, in steep, forested terrain. In between was 20 feet of churn that no rescuer could navigate.
Hickman’s back was pressed against a steep rock overhang, and the ledge he balanced on was so narrow that when he crouched down, his toes were in the water.
The overhang angled so steeply, it was impossible to stand.
Swollen by snowmelt, the river is near its annual peak. Sheriff’s Deputy Bill Quistorf estimated the water temperature at about 40 degrees.
“It’s not a very big river, but it’s fast-moving and the channel is deep,” he said.
There was no place to land on the steep slope, but a helicopter was able to lower two rescuers about 200 yards downstream.
The men hoped to reach Hickman, snap him into a harness and secure it to the rocks while they awaited additional help.
But after walking upstream, they were stymied by the 20-foot-high rock overhang. The pair roped up, and one of the men rappelled down and over the cliff.
After several attempts to swing in under the overhang, the rope broke, sawed in two by the sharp rock edge. The rescuer plummeted into the water.
A safety rope held by the other rescuer saved his life.
“That’s the only reason he didn’t go over the falls,” said Lt. Susy Johnson of the Sheriff’s Office.
With darkness falling, the county’s “swiftwater” rescue team mobilized. One group hiked up the trail to scout out a place to cross the river.
Another group stayed on the trail to keep an eye on the boy, just 20 feet away on the opposite bank.
Volunteer Ernie Zeller tossed a bundle of warm clothing, a blanket and PowerBars to the teenager, who was dressed for a sunny day in shorts.
“I just threw it right at his chest, and he caught it,” Zeller said. “He was a pretty strong kid. He wasn’t going to fall off.”
The rescue team finally located a spot above the falls where the river widened slightly and the current slackened enough that one man was able to get across and set up a rope line. The rest of the team held onto the rope as they crossed the river.
They hiked down the hill to the rock where the boy was clinging, and where the helicopter had dropped a load of rescue and camping gear.
Working by headlamps, the team set up ropes to lower one man down the cliff. But they still faced the problem of getting to the boy. There was no place for a rescuer to stand except in the rushing water — far too dangerous.
Their solution was to carry a 24-foot aluminum fire ladder up the trail and lay it across the river. Lashed firmly at both ends, the ladder formed a stable platform for the rescuer to stand on as he was lowered into the water.
With firm footing, the man was able to get the boy into a harness and clip him onto a rope. The other team members heaved and pulled the pair up the rock face to safety shortly after 1:30 a.m. Sunday.
It was too hazardous to hike out in the dark, and everyone was tired, wet and cold. The group made camp, built a fire and spent the night. Hickman was so exhausted it took several tries to wake him in the morning, Quistorf said.
As chief pilot for the Sheriff’s Office, Quistorf fired up his chopper at dawn and swooped in to pull the group off the mountain using a new piece of gear for the first time.
Called an airborne tactical extraction platform, or ATEP, the gizmo is shaped like an upside-down umbrella made of Kevlar webbing and heavy-duty aluminum.
It’s designed to evacuate people from places where a helicopter can’t land.
Quistorf made three trips up and down the hill ferrying people and gear.
Quistorf said Hickman seemed subdued. “You can imagine, he went through a pretty big ordeal.”
When one of the rescuers asked the teen about the experience, he replied it was pretty exciting — except for the times he feared for his life.
The Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office Search and Rescue Unit is a volunteer organization, Quistorf pointed out. “These guys definitely deserve the praise.”
The Sheriff’s Office released a video Monday of Hickman’s rescue.
The video, shot by a volunteer rescuer, shows Hickman huddled on a narrow, sloping rock shelf with his back to the water just above Wallace Falls. One roped-up rescuer cautiously makes his way to the boy using an aluminum ladder as a foothold, and then guides him up a rock wall to safety.
The video shows the ladder secured to the shore on one end and suspended in the water under the rock ledge by two ropes on the other end. The rescuer who reached the boy uses it as a foothold, helps him rope up and then helps him climb up the rock wall.
The video is available at http://vimeo.com/42556237 .