Thursday, December 2, 2021

A 70-foot tumble, a desperate rescue try, 2 broken backs & survival

By Gordon Woodworth, Chronicle News Editor

A South Glens Falls native was involved in an April accident and rescue in Burlington, Vermont, in which she and the friend she risked her life to help both nearly died. Their ordeal — and ultimate rescue — was first reported by the Burlington Free Press.

Karen Ross, 52, saw her friend fall 70 feet down a steep rocky embankment when a walking path gave way high above Lake Champlain.

“She was two steps ahead of me, and there was a tree between us,” the 1981 South High grad says. “She turned to say something to me, the shale underneath her feet gave way and she disappeared. She hit everything on the way down — rocks and trees and stumps — and then hit her head on a rock before falling into the water. She was like a rag doll, hitting everything on the way down.”

In Vermont — Members of the Burlington Fire Department lowered stretchers down the steep embankment to rescue South Glens Falls native Karen Ross and her friend, who both suffered broken backs after falls down the cliff into the water on April 17. Photo by Wayne Savage
In Vermont — Members of the Burlington Fire Department lowered stretchers down the steep embankment to rescue South Glens Falls native Karen Ross and her friend, who both suffered broken backs after falls down the cliff into the water on April 17. Photo by Wayne Savage

The friend, who asked not to be identified in this story, broke her neck and back, both ankles, both knees and an arm in the fall at Burlington’s Rock Point. She had a fractured skull and gash in her forehead.

Face down in water

“She was face first in the water, with blood gushing out of her head,” Ms. Ross, 52, said. “When she fell, it was like I was watching it in slow motion.”

With no one else around, and no cellphone — it was charging back at her friend’s apartment — instinct took over.

Ms. Ross says, “It never occurred to me that I would get hurt if I went down there. I just thought, ‘How do I get down there to save her before she drowns?’ I didn’t think for a second.

“There were no houses around, and no one else on the path, and there was no time. I had to get down there whatever way possible.”

She says she started down the steep embankment, grabbing onto tree branches.

“Then I lost my footing and my hand grip and started sliding on my backside.

“I was grabbing at the shale, but as I got further I realized I was picking up speed.”

Near the bottom of the cliff, she says she was tossed airborne, as her friend was.

She landed in the water, next to her. Ms. Ross’s back was broken in two places. She also broke her tailbone and right ankle.

Karen Ross and her friend both suffered broken backs. Here they were loaded onto a Coast Guard boat and transported to the hospital. Photo by Wayne Savage
Karen Ross and her friend both suffered broken backs. Here they were loaded onto a Coast Guard boat and transported to the hospital. Photo by Wayne Savage

“I couldn’t stand up, but somehow I pulled my friend out of the water and got us both up on shore,” Ms. Ross said. “I swear God took over. There was no way I could have done this without God.”

The friend’s backpack, with her cellphone inside, had been thrown into the water. Ms. Ross retrieved it, but the phone was soaked and didn’t work.

“We were laying on the shale, it was getting late in the day, and it started to rain,” she says. “We only had my jacket, which of course was wet.”

Ms. Ross says she started calling for help as waves crashed into the shore and that the women huddled together to stay warm, with the one jacket covering them.

“That jacket really saved us,” she says.

Ms. Ross says she told her friend to yell for help every few minutes throughout the night as a means to keep her awake.

Karen Ross broke her back, tailbone and an ankle. After a week in the University of Vermont Medical Center, and another week in a rehab center, she’s recovering at her mother’s Queensbury home. Chronicle photo/Gordon Woodworth
Karen Ross broke her back, tailbone and an ankle. After a week in the University of Vermont Medical Center, and another week in a rehab center, she’s recovering at her mother’s Queensbury home. Chronicle photo/Gordon Woodworth

Huddled together, in the rain

It poured rain all night.” Ms. Harris says that in the morning, her friend said “You had better find someone to help us or I’m going to die.”

Ms. Ross says she made her way — hunched over on her hands and feet — a half-mile up the beach. She says she yelled and yelled, and finally someone answered.

“I told her we were both hurt, and to send for help,” she says. “I still don’t know who answered me and called 9-1-1.”

As Ms. Ross returned to her friend, a man who had seen them walking the previous day returned and saw their car. He walked the path, found the friend and helped her before the Coast Guard and Burlington Fire Department arrived.

“I’d love to hug those people because they saved our lives,” says Ms. Ross. “My friend had already surrendered to God. She couldn’t feel the heat from my body anymore.

“We were both hypothermic,” Ms. Ross says. “The Coast Guard and Fire Department guys were great. They were pretty shocked that both of us survived that fall.”

The women were transported to the University of Vermont Medical Center.

10-hour operation on her back

“They brought me right into surgery to repair my broken back,” Ms. Ross says. “I have two 15-inch titanium rods on either side of my spine now. And as soon as my 10-hour operation was done, the same doctor operated on my friend.”

The friend remains in the hospital and faces a long recovery.

A United States Coast Guard crew responded to the accident, and told Ms. Ross they were surprised they survived. Photos by Wayne Savage
A United States Coast Guard crew responded to the accident, and told Ms. Ross they were surprised they survived. Photos by Wayne Savage

Ironically, Ms. Ross was in Burlington because her friend had helped her get in to see a doctor at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Hanover, N.H, for tremors. Ms. Ross says she has been experiencing for 10 years. She retired after 25-plus year in corporate sales with Rand McNally.

“My friend was trying to help me by bringing me to Dartmouth,” she says. “I ended up repaying her, I guess.”

Ms. Ross is recovering at her mother Jane’s home in Queensbury.

“My message is if God was not there with us, we would never have survived. There is no other way I could have done this.

“I’m just so thankful we are both alive. Both of us were touched by the hand of God. I’m so grateful she lived. Her injuries were so much more severe than mine.

“My other message is you don’t know what you are capable of. I didn’t think about how I was going to save her, I just did it.”

Colchester Technical Rescue carefully lift a woman onto the deck of a U.S. Coast Guard boat from Burlington after she was discovered, fallen from the Rock Point cliffs and spending the night injured on the shores of Lake Champlain.
Colchester Technical Rescue carefully lift a woman onto the deck of a U.S. Coast Guard boat from Burlington after she was discovered, fallen from the Rock Point cliffs and spending the night injured on the shores of Lake Champlain.

Copyright © 2015 Lone Oak Publishing Co., Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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