Five years ago, in the spring of 2013, six college students went on a hike in the Blue Ridge Mountains in Northern Virginia. They returned to campus that night as a group of five as one went home in a body bag.
This is a story about how one mountain rule could have saved her life—and how it could have saved me from dealing with years of survivor’s guilt and severe depression.
On April 8, 2013, I was in my senior year at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., studying to be a journalist. After months of cold weather, it finally felt like spring. My college boyfriend, Mark, and I were eating a late lunch outside in the courtyard when I got a call from my roommate, Lori, asking if I wanted to go hike up to Crabtree Falls with three other girls from our dorm. Being a city girl and having absolutely no idea what to expect, I reluctantly agreed with the one condition that Mark joined us.
I hurried back to my dorm to change out of my school clothes and to gather some things I knew I would need. I flung open my door to find my four beautiful friends—hair and makeup done, heavy jewelry on, wearing insensible hiking shoes and cutoffs over their string bikinis. After pulling a sports bra over my head and tying up the laces to my tennis shoes, I advised the girls wear something a little more conducive to the occasion.
When we arrived at the foot of the mountain, the sun was already setting. In two hours, it would be completely black. Everyone picked a buddy to keep track of, and Mark and I headed up the winding trail first. The girls loved to stop and snap photos of the budding trees, take selfies and giggle about Mark and I. But it was getting late, and Mark and I worried we’d never make it to the top of the waterfall plateau before dark.
We were about three-quarters of the way to the top when we stopped to shoot a group photo by the falls. The water rushed and splashed as it flowed to the bottom near the rocky creek about 5,000 feet below. I looked across the waterfall and saw a few large, flat boulders that were easily accessible. It was the perfect spot for a photo. All we had to do was cross the iron-barred fence and overlook the sign that read, “Do Not Cross Fence.” Lori went first, then me, and Mark followed. When we got closer to the boulder, it became clear that it would not be big enough for all five of us to sit on at once. Lori and I posed like Superman for a photo as Mark watched from a mossy rock a few feet away while the other girls patiently waited for their turn from behind the fence.
My 18-year-old roomate, Faith Helbig, was next in line. She untied her Vans, pulled off her socks and started over the railing. I took my eyes off her for a second while Mark helped me back toward the safety of the iron fence. The next thing I heard were shrieks of terror — horrifying screams that echoed through the forest. She was gone — looking back at me, screaming for help but I couldn’t hear her—reaching for someone to rescue her. And it wasn’t real.
Moments later, I was juggling three cell phones, sprinting back down the mountain alone, praying I’d find a place with just enough service for just a few seconds to make a call to 911. It seemed like hours before they got there. It always does. When I got to the bottom of the mountain, I wept like a child and screamed for help in a puddle of my tears, but no one could hear me. The earth beneath my feet was spinning. My vision was blurry. My heart felt numb. My shoes were laced too tightly. And then I saw them. The paramedics were at the bottom of the hill coming toward me.
It was cold in the ambulance. I remember it smelled like bleach and sanitizer. I sat with a female medic named Tonya as she tried to calm me down. I was sobbing and screaming and stomping my feet, but Tonya held onto me as I went into shock.
“How far did she fall?” Tonya asked, as I told her I thought she had fallen about 40 feet, reassuring myself that 40 feet wasn’t that high. But Tonya shook her head when I told her I watched as Faith bounced down the rocky waterfall like a basketball most of the time. She stroked my head in her hands and wiped away my tears, squeezing my hand every so often — and then we heard it.
A loud voice from a dispatcher came over the radio. I’ll never forget the words that he said.
“I’m calling it a DOA 18:37.”
Faith died instantly from hitting her head on one rock after she slipped off a slippery boulder in the middle of the waterfall. It was an accident that could have been prevented had we followed the rules of the park at Crabtree Falls that sunny, bright day.
Five years later, I still hear her voice. I still remember my immaturity that cost my friend her life. And I know that it could have been me — and I’m thankful it wasn’t. So, please, read the rules at the park entrance. Don’t disregard them. Follow them. It could save your life.
In loving memory of Faith Helbig: April 20, 1994-April 8, 2013.