CULLMAN, Ala. (AP) — Zac Roden had been to Welcome Falls many times, and all of those times that he travelled the few miles from his home to visit the landmark left him confident in his abilities to traverse the slick terrain. But in June, a quick trip to show the falls to a friend left Roden with injuries that he is lucky to have survived.
It was only a few days until Roden’s 21st birthday on what and was meant to be a quiet day. His longtime friend Candace Siler was in town visiting and it was hot out — causing them to reminisce about their past trips to Welti Falls and how Siler had never seen Welcome Falls.
They drove to the site and hiked down the short distance from the road until reaching the creek bed that spills over 50 or so feet to the bottom of the falls. It was peaceful, Siler said, as the sound of distant thunder and rain just beginning to hit the canopy of leaves above them created a calming effect. The only concern on her mind was snakes. As they reached the falls, Siler remembers pausing to look at a white sign with red lettering nailed to a tree that read “Warning: Slippery Rocks.”
The falls were mostly dry, with very little water going over the edge, Siler recalls. But there was a small pool of water at the bottom that seemed like a perfect place to go for a quick swim. As they began searching for a path down, Siler said that moments after she warned Roden about walking so close to the edge he lost his footing and tripped.
Siler got to the spot where she had seen Roden go over within seconds. But being prepared to see her friend at the bottom of the gorge, she said it felt like it took a lifetime.
“When I looked over he had somehow landed on this tiny ledge, I still don’t know how that happened. If he had fallen even a centimeter in either direction he would have missed it,” Siler said.
Roden was barely conscious and doesn’t remember much from his first fall, other than the sound of his friend calling down to him.
“I just remember seeing light and hearing a voice yelling at me, but that was when I rolled over the ledge,” Roden said.
Siler was trying to call 911, but the lack of cell service and Roden’s protests kept her from doing so immediately. She asked him to be still until she could find a way to get to him. But Roden was stubborn and adamant that he was OK. As he tried to get himself up he fell a second time.
The second, 35-foot fall left Roden at the bottom of the falls with a list of potentially life-threatening injuries. Roden’s neck was broken at C1, a vertebrae near the top of the neck, seven of his ribs were broken, his right lung had collapsed, along with his sternum and both sides of his pelvis. He had also broken his hand.
From her time spent as a lifeguard, Siler began assessing Roden’s injuries after she made her way down to her friend. She said that despite his claims that he was OK, she could feel his broken ribs and see that his entire right side was bruised. Still, Roden was insistent that they not call 911.
“I was afraid I was going to be stuck down there, I remember several years ago a guy fell and broke his leg and was out there overnight until the had to airlift him out. So Candace, even though she had never been there before, made her way down to me and we crawled out. You know just her pushing me a little at a time. When we finally made it to the car I guess the adrenaline had worn off because I just collapsed and said I’m hurt pretty bad,” Roden said.
Siler had only been to Cullman a couple of times, but she remembered the highway that Cullman Regional Medical Center was located on. If she could just find that highway she could get him there. Roden was insistent that they just go home, but Siler said that after suffering three seizures on their hike to the car Roden had “lost his right to choose to go home,” and that she was taking him to the hospital.
After finding her way to the hospital a tube was quickly inserted into Roden’s chest to re-inflate his lung, a procedure typically done under anesthesia, but because of the fear of brain injury, Roden was left awake. He was quickly transferred to the UAB’s Intensive Care Unit where he “celebrated” his birthday while they determined the extent of his injuries. After five days Roden was transferred to the Spain Rehab facility for another week and a half.
Roden only just recently was able to remove his neck brace but has been unable to return to his job as a server for Logan’s Steakhouse. Like many 20-somethings in the service industry, Roden does not have health insurance and has had a gofundme account setup by his friend Stephanie Whatley — who has said she also survived an accident at Welcome Falls in 1991 — to help with his healthcare expenses. Just one office visit to treat only his hand injury added $4,000 to his growing list of expenses.
Despite his circumstances, Roden considers himself lucky.
“I mean I’m lucky to be alive. Even the doctors were saying that it was a miracle that I’m even here,” Roden said.
His friend Siler agrees.
“It still just blows my mind, people just don’t survive falls like he did,” Siler said.