By Eric Stevick Herald Writer
The video below was produced by a Snohomish County search and rescue volunteer. The first minute of the video details the location of the rescue with still photos. Video footage of the rescue begins at 1:10.
GOLD BAR — William Hickman is one lucky kid.
The Burien boy, 13, spent more than eight hours Saturday crouched beneath a large granite overhang after becoming stranded between two waterfalls while on a tiny slab of rock with frigid water lapping at his toes.
It took time, teamwork and ingenuity to rescue the lanky teen who’d been swept down a stretch of river at Wallace Falls State Park on Saturday.
A rock ledge is all that separated him from shooting over a 270-foot drop.
“It is just a miracle he got out of the water where he did,” said William Quistorf, chief helicopter pilot for Snohomish County Search and Rescue. “When you see how fast that water was moving and you see how much white water there was, it’s just a miracle he got out.”
More than 50 volunteers — many using head lamps through the night — helped save the boy’s life.
William was hiking with his dad, his younger brother Patrick and a family friend when he began wading in the river above Wallace Falls near Gold Bar. He slipped on some rocks around 5 p.m. The water carried him down a 10-foot waterfall and he was able to scramble to a rock ledge near the shore. Below him was another 10-foot plunge, then the majestic, oft-photographed main waterfall.
“It was problematic from a number of standpoints,” Quistorf said. “This was definitely a high-risk mission.”
Snohomish County sheriff’s Sgt. Danny Wikstrom, who heads the volunteer search and rescue program, knows how treacherous that stretch of the river can be. In 2000, a Mill Creek woman fell to her death there after she stopped to wash her hands in the river and was taken by the current.
“He’s a very lucky young man,” Wikstrom said. “I would say he was in a very very dangerous spot, particularly if he tried to move out of there.”
Rescuers had to contend with crossing the frothy river fed by frigid snow melt.
William was stuck on a rock, roughly 1 foot wide and 2 feet long. His perch was beneath an overhang that jutted out several feet.
Adding to the challenge, he ended up on the side of the Wallace River opposite from the hiking trail.
His position gave rescuers no opportunity for a foothold and meant he couldn’t be hoisted up onto from SnoHawk 10, a black UH-1H Plus “Huey” helicopter used in search and rescue operations.
Rescuers trained in technical climbing first tried to reach the teen by rappelling down and swinging in from above the overhang.
The terrain was too unforgiving for that strategy.
Friction from the rock caused one of the ropes to fray and give way. A rescuer plunged into the river, still connected to a second safety rope.
He had cut the rope to get free and climbed out of the water to shore.
Later, a seven-member swift water rescue team hiked to an area across the river from where the boy was. All seven crossed the river to reach the other two rescuers.
“We could tell it wasn’t going to play out in a simple scenario,” said John Morton, the swift water team leader whose day job is a Boeing engineer.
A ground team on the trail side of the river set up rigging using four ropes and put in place a 24-foot metal ladder borrowed from the Snohomish County Fire District 26 station at Gold Bar. The ladder was placed horizontally across the river.
The rescuers needed just enough of the ladder to establish a foothold to the rock beneath the overhang.
Josh Warren, a member of the swift water rescue team, then was lowered to reach the boy. He carefully studied the situation, testing the footing beneath his lamp light after he reached William. He eventually secured the teen in a harness that was connected to safety ropes.
Warren then coached William where to step and what to hang on to.
Warren said he was confident because he knew his team leader had backup plans for his backup plans.
From Warren’s standpoint, such a technical rescue requires both forethought and flexibility. All the while, he was asking himself: “If I do something, can I get back?”
While part of the team worked on the extraction, search and rescue volunteer Ernie Zeller was able to toss the boy dry clothes, food and a blanket to warm up.
“He’s a smart kid,” Zeller said. “He asked me if I had a plan. A couple of seconds later, he asked if it was going to work.”
For his part, William stayed calm and remained still.
When he was caught in the current and pulled down the first waterfall, he told himself to avoid landing on his head.
After he scrambled to shore, he waited because he immediately recognized the danger of his situation. He folded his 5 foot-eight inch, 130-pound frame into the tiny rock refuge.
“I was happy I didn’t fall over the giant one,” he said.
Once it grew dark, he began to wonder if the rescuers would be able to reach him.
“After 20 minutes, I noticed the water level was rising and that scared me a lot,” he said.
Shawn Tobin, ranger for the Wallace Falls State Park for 13 years, helped rescuers lug a ladder and other equipment up the trail. He can remember more than one death at the falls over the years. Search-and-rescue records show crews are called out there regularly to look for missing or injured hikers, not to mention people planning suicides and even the occasional drunken wanderer.
He was impressed with how smoothly the operation was handled under such perilous circumstances.
“Everything was very fluid,” he said. “They did a great job.”
Around 1:30 a.m. Sunday, the boy was raised to higher ground. He camped there with the rescue team, near a fire started for warmth.
Some of the volunteers had been at it since morning, practicing their high-angle rescue skills on a cliff west of Index.
William, cold and exhausted, was rousted around 5:30 a.m.
Around 6 a.m. Sunday, SnoHawk 10 began the first of three trips to ferry the boy and rescue crews to safety below.
In small groups, they were flown from the area using an extraction platform suspended 80 feet below the helicopter that dropped them off in a Startup gravel pit.
William said he tried not to look down. Instead, he peered straight ahead and tried to enjoy the view.
It wasn’t until the next morning that he let his mother, Heather Hickman, know what happened.
She called him to ask why he didn’t call her Saturday night.
“My heart sunk,” the mother said. “He could have died. I almost lost one of my children.”
On Monday, she said she was just grateful she had a chance to say thanks to all those who saved her son.
Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446, firstname.lastname@example.org.