Thursday, July 1, 2004

Hiker's fall a lesson in gorge survival

Lost Scouts in right place at right time to lend hand

By Cliff Radel
Enquirer staff writer

Members of Boy Scout Troop 672 of Kenwood's All Saints Church were hiking in the Red River Gorge in Kentucky's Daniel Boone National Forest when they discovered a hiker injured in an overnight fall. Cletus Oaks (wearing red cap) wasn't with the Scouts in the gorge, but taught them the first-aid skills they used.
The Enquirer/TONY JONES
Kendel Culbertson stands near the spot where David Scheller fell from the cliff in background.

For six hours, David Scheller moaned in the dead of night.

The 21-year-old didn't know where he was as he lay crumpled at the base of a cliff. He had no idea what parts of his body were broken.

Something oozed from a hole behind his right ear. Days later he would learn it was spinal fluid. And it helped save his life.

His 17-year-old brother, John, and 21-year-old friend, Andy Buskirk, were less than 200 feet from him. But he was too hurt to call their names.

The odds were against David seeing another day. But he is alive today - and recovering at his parents' Anderson Township home.

His miraculous survival is a testament to his dogged persistence, his brother's presence, a chance encounter with a group of Boy Scouts and the grace of God.

This story of brotherly love and saving graces unfolded deep in the wilds of the Red River Gorge Geological Area of Kentucky's Daniel Boone National Forest.

The gorge annually sees 1 million visitors. Many get there by driving 21/2 hours from downtown Cincinnati.

The area's 28,000 acres are home to caves, cliffs and natural arches more commonly associated with national parks out West. The gorge's woods are so dense they give hikers the impression they are following the footsteps of the last of the Mohicans.

To survive a fall in this remote area where cell phone signals fear to penetrate requires equal amounts of strength and good fortune.

[IMAGE] David Scheller
Wil Cagle, the Scheller brothers' former soccer coach and director of Cincinnati State's soccer program, believes David has both.

"He's a hard-nosed bull of a kid," Cagle said. "And, some grace has fallen upon him."

David's injuries have left the brothers too traumatized to talk about the accident. Details of the fall and recovery have been pieced together from conversations with family, friends and rescuers.

Stu Scheller, their father, said he's proud of his sons. "John, for helping to save David. And David, for fighting to survive."

He wants to issue a warning, however, about wilderness visits.

WCPO interviews with scouts
The Red River Gorge Geological Area is no stranger to tragic cliff falls. Since statistics were first compiled in 1960, the 28,000-acre section of the Daniel Boone National Forest has been the site of 1,575 search and rescue missions and 55 deaths, many associated with falls.

The most recent death from a fall in the area covering three Eastern Kentucky counties occurred Nov. 15, 2003, and claimed the life of Jamie Rowland, 18, of Springboro, a University of Cincinnati student.

"No matter how strong and experienced you are, there are risks when you go to a place like the Red River Gorge."

The Scheller brothers and Buskirk left for the gorge on the morning of May 22. The experienced campers planned to hike into the woods, spend the night at the gorge and be back in time for the brothers' Sunday soccer game.

They spent the afternoon hiking and rock climbing. After they set up camp and ate dinner, rain fell. So, the campers moved to higher ground and a dry rock shelter.

On the map, their shelter from the storm sat in the Indian Stairway area, off the Sheltowee Trace National Recreation Trail in the Menifee County portion of the gorge.

They were in the middle of nowhere. While a mile from a visitor center, they were in view of nothing man-made. Before them stretched a breath-taking panorama of trees, sky and sheer cliffs.

At their new site, the campers stayed up late. Beers were consumed by those old enough to drink. John had some Coke. Then they went to sleep. Andy and John shared a tent. David slept in the dry rock shelter.

Sometime after 3 a.m., David fell from the edge of the cliff. He plummeted 100 feet and rolled about another 50, coming to rest in a thicket of rhododendron.

Andy and John awoke around 8 a.m. to find David missing.

Nearly an hour passed before John found his brother bloodied and semi-conscious at the cliff's base. After Andy joined them, John went for help.

He crossed paths with the Boy Scouts of Troop 672 from Kenwood's All Saints Catholic Church. The Scouts were getting in some required hiking time before a planned trip to New Mexico.

The Scouts were lost.

"I got us lost eight or nine times," said Peter Schildknecht, that morning's navigator and a ninth-grader at Moeller High School.

The Scouts were also thirsty and low on water. So, while others in their party of 12 slowly made their way down the trail, half of the Scouts stopped at a stream.

Ben Wells, an attorney and assistant Scoutmaster, heard something. "It was a faint cry for help."

Four seasoned Scouts and assistant Scoutmaster Dan Teegarden, an engineer, slowly made their way through the underbrush toward the cries.

Meanwhile, the front of the Scouts' line of advance met a breathless John Scheller. Scoutmaster and accountant Bob Carroll sent John back to comfort David while the Scouts under his command quickly hiked down the milelong trail to a nearby visitor center.

Teegarden and four Scouts arrived at the accident scene. Their first-aid training took over.

No one moved David for fear of a spinal-cord injury. Blood seeped from his ears and nose and from a wound behind his right ear.

The latter wound was one of his saving graces. It came from a broken bone in his skull. Leaking spinal fluid, the wound relieved pressure on his brain, preventing permanent damage and possibly saving his life.

Wearing shorts and socks, David lay in a fetal position - his left arm and leg partially paralyzed.

"He kept trying to get up," said Shaun Carroll, a St. Xavier High School sophomore. "So, when his brother arrived, he held him and kept him from moving."

Noontime marked the arrival of Kendel Culbertson, the first lawman on the scene. During the 23 years he has worked the gorge for the Forest Service, he has rescued hundreds of fall victims.

Culbertson attributes David's survival to John's presence, the aid of the Boy Scouts and the quick work of paramedics.

"David fed off the comfort John gave him," Culbertson said. "When John left his side, David became very upset. When John came back, David calmed down."

The Boy Scouts acted as trailblazers, clearing brush for the paramedics, and trail markers, pointing the way for rescue workers removing the injured camper.

Shaun Carroll downplayed the troop's efforts.

"Any Scout troop," Carroll said, "would have done the same thing."

Ten hours after he fell, David was placed on a stretcher. A six-man team took two hours to carry him out of the deep woods to an ambulance. Three miles away, a helicopter waited to airlift him to Lexington's University of Kentucky Medical Center where he was admitted in critical condition.

David remained in the hospital for six days. Then, he spent 19 more at Hartwell's Drake Center.

He returned to his parents' home June 17. Smiley-faced welcome-home balloons still float from fence posts by the driveway.

He faces the uncertain future of all head-injury patients. He experiences short-term memory loss and the emotional frustration that causes. He wears a neck brace to help heal a broken vertebra.

Yet he is intent on going back to college and returning to the gorge.

While David recovers, his family and those who came to his aid ponder the lessons learned by his fall.

"Always be prepared," said Scout Shaun Carroll.

"Always stay calm," said Scout Matt Teegarden.

"Alcohol and the cliffs don't mix," said Culbertson.

Signs on the trail and warnings on maps advise against this mixture. The officer could have tucked a ticket into David's good hand, for being in an alcohol-involved fall.

"In all of the years I've been doing this," Culbertson said, "I've never charged anyone. You don't want to add insult to injury."

Stu Scheller insisted this is a cautionary tale for young men his sons' age, not a prohibitory one about Red River Gorge.

"David doesn't want to discourage anyone from going to the gorge," he said. "He loves that place."

All he asks is that you remember his story.


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