Sam Roberts is certain that God is the reason he survived a fall from a bluff in the Upper Buffalo Wilderness Area of the Ozark National Forest in March.
"God saved me," the 19-year-old Roberts said. "It was a miracle."
Roberts was hiking with friends, Ty Maple and Parker West, all of Conway, when he slipped and fell about 35 feet from a bluff near Hawksbill Crag, also known as Whitaker Point.
The outing began March 8 when Maple and Roberts, freshmen at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville at the time, traveled to the popular hiking spot for a weekend camping trip.
Roberts and Maple said hiking, camping and just about anything else outdoors are activities they’ve always enjoyed.
The trip got off to a rocky start when the two got lost on the way to the park.
"We didn’t get there until after midnight (on Friday)," Maple said. "We set up our tents in some random woods behind a church."
Maple said the third member of the group, West, a student at Texas A&M, joined them the next morning.
The trio explored the 1 1/2-mile Whitaker Point trail the entire morning, and into the afternoon on March 9. Maple said the group made its way to the waterfall area, and decided it would camp there that night. The trio left their bags near the waterfall, and continued the trek to Whitaker Point.
Along the way, the group encountered a steep trail that Roberts decided to attempt to climb, thinking it would be quicker, while his friends decided to take a different route.
"We all looked at it, and I said, ‘That looks sort of hard right there,’" Roberts recalled. "So (Ty and Parker) went further down, but I just thought, ‘Okay, I’ll just go ahead and climb up this part.’"
Maple said he and West reached the top of the bluff before Roberts and waited for him at the top.
Maple said he had a dream the previous night about something bad happening to the group while they were hiking, and he recalled the dream while at the top of the bluff. Maple admitted the occurrence worried him while he and West waited for Roberts to climb up.
"I kept freaking out, because I didn’t want him to go his own way," Maple said. "I kept thinking, ‘Something bad is going to happen, something bad is going to happen.’"
"They were waiting on me and were like, ‘Sam, you doing okay?’" Roberts recalled. "’Yea, I’m doing okay.’ But it was really difficult, and pretty scary getting up it."
Roberts said his climb was straight up, and even seemed to be curving backward at times, but he managed to make it to the top of the bluff. Roberts stopped to rest while still near the edge.
"I was pretty tired," he said. "I guess I just moved my body, and my foot slipped on some pine straw and leaves, and I fell to the bottom."
Maple said he saw Roberts fall, and then heard a "crunch" sound, followed by silence.
Roberts fell straight backwards, but said he got turned around during the fall and hit the ground feet first. Roberts then hit his tailbone on a rock. The impact jerked Roberts’ body forward, and then backward into a rock, breaking two vertebrae in his back. Roberts also suffered a broken left arm, and three broken bones in his tailbone from the fall.
Roberts said the area his head landed in, between two rocks, was covered with moss.
Maple hurried down, and found Roberts between the rocks at the bottom of the bluff.
"I thought he was dead at first," Maple said. "The way he was laying between the two rocks, I thought he was dead. Then he screamed, so I knew he was alive."
Roberts lay between the rocks for close to six hours as emergency personnel, Roberts’ friends and his father devised a plan to rescue him. Maple said almost 40 emergency personnel responded to the scene.
Maple said a helicopter rescue was requested twice, but denied both times due to severe weather approaching the area.
Roberts was put in a rescue basket, and pulled up by the side of the bluff. The emergency team then loaded Roberts on a dolly-like cart, and pulled him up the rest of the trail "in the pouring down rain," Maple said.
Roberts was taken by ambulance to a hospital in Harrison where he underwent immediate surgery on his broken arm, which had a bone protruding from it as a result of the fall. Roberts said he was unaware of the severity of the injury.
"I looked down and saw some blood and thought, ‘Oh, I must have scraped it,’" he said.
Roberts was up and walking around the hospital the following day, something doctors were not expecting, Maple said.
"It was amazing (Sam) was already walking again," Maple said. "(The doctors) were thinking it was going to be a while before he walked again."
Roberts was released from the hospital after two days with only a splint for his arm.
Roberts said he’s not quite back to full strength yet, but is close and has no limitations in his activities.
Surviving the fall has changed Roberts’ outlook on life, he said.
"God’s angels really took care of me," he said. "I think God has a plan for me, and saved me for a reason."
The ordeal was something that Maple said haunted him for a while. The disturbing noise of Roberts hitting the rocks was something Maple relived in his head for a period of time after the fall.
"I don’t ever want to hear that noise, or see that again," he said. "I had dreams about it for the longest time. I was in the dorm by myself while he was still back at home, and I would just hear that stupid noise.
"I’d close my eyes and hear that noise, or see him falling backwards," Maple said. "I hated it."
Roberts missed almost a month of school after his accident, but was able to return and finish the semester. He was forced to drop two classes after the fall, but is retaking the courses during summer school.
Roberts said one of the things that sticks out the most is "seeing God’s love from all His people" in the weeks and months following his accident.
"My mom, still to this day, will come to me and say, ‘I just talked to this lady, and she told me that her church was praying for you, and is still praying for you,’" he said. "It’s amazing."
Maple said he called nearly every contact in his phone in the hours following Roberts’ fall and told them all to, ‘Start praying."
"It was definitely scary, but looking back, it is really amazing to see how God worked through it," Maple said. "Even with me, thinking how I jumped down the side of the cliff (to get to Sam), I have no idea how I didn’t fall myself."
Newton County search and rescue coordinator Glenn Wheeler said survival from a fall in the Haley Zega Falls area is an uncommon occurrence.
"It’s very rare for us to respond to that area, and have someone survive and basically have a full recovery," he said. "It’s more common to find them deceased."
Wheeler said the unit responds to several falls a year in that area.
"I don’t know if I would say (Roberts) was extremely lucky or extremely blessed," Wheeler said. "But he had something going for him that day."
Maple and Roberts said they have not been hiking since the accident, but plan to in the future. Both said one thing will be different with all their remaining hiking trips.
"We’re never going to climb anything again without ropes," Roberts said.
(Staff writer Lee Hogan can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 505-1246.)
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