I wrote my account of this day less than a week after it happened….I have lightly edited to clean up some grammar, clear up some details, add one important postscript to our story, and remove some names for privacy. Lisa Walton 6/21/18
Wednesday, July 6, 2005, will always stand for me as a milepost. For I know it is only by the grace of God through His provision that a nine year old girl, Laurel Massey and I are alive today. First and foremost, I consider this God’s story- a testimony of His sovereignty in our lives. Those of us involved in this story were participants whose paths crossed in a moment in time, some of us complete strangers to each other.
Earlier in the day, our family, along with Laurel’s family and several other families who were camping together at Oconee State Park in northwestern SC had enjoyed a tubing trip down a portion of the Chatooga River. After returning to our campsites, a decision was made to take an afternoon trip to Turtleback and Rainbow Falls on the Horsepasture River in Transylvania County, NC, which was about an hour’s drive from the state park. Some of us had been there before and knew it to be a beautiful and thrilling spot where you could possibly slide down Turtleback Falls into a deep pool below. The children especially looked forward to the chance of getting to swim. Bathing suits were donned and towels were grabbed and we headed off to our next adventure.
To get to the falls (in 2005) involved about a mile hike in from the main road down a path that becomes increasingly steeper and rockier. (Note- this path no longer exists. You still can hike into these waterfalls along a different route from Gorges State Park.) The excitement was mounting as you could begin to hear the rush of the water as we neared the falls. There had been a good deal of rainfall in the area over the past few days. When we were able to get our first good look at Turtleback Falls, I remember being astounded at the amount of water that was going over the falls as compared to when I had seen it three years before. That previous summer, there were many people sliding and jumping down the falls. This day, nobody was getting anywhere near them. Even the most adventurous member of our group, after some consideration, decided it was too much even for him to risk. I remember thinking that I was so glad that he didn’t get in the water because I knew nobody had any business being in the river that day.However, we weren’t finished yet. We still had another waterfall to hike down to - Rainbow Falls. Here, the Horsepasture River cascades 120 feet over steep gray granite walls. After about a five minute hike which was even steeper and rockier than the previous part of the path, we were looking out from the top of this beautiful waterfall with a massive amount of water crashing over the crest onto the boulders far below. Again, as compared to our previous memory of these falls, the increased water volume was incredible to see. My husband, along with one of the more adventurous families who were there, decided they had to experience this waterfall just a little more up close and personal, so they climbed over a split rail fence and headed down a steep and muddy slope to see Rainbow Falls from below while the rest of us watched from the relative safety of our perch above. They came back up soaking wet from the force of the spray and exhilarated from their adventure. I climbed just over the other side of the fence to give them a helping hand the last few feet of their climb.
It was time for us to head back up from Rainbow Falls….and I had a plan. After I climbed back up the path, I was planning to sit in a little scooped out round place in the rock along the river just below the pool and Turtleback Falls that I had seen earlier, take off my hiking shoes and socks, put my feet in the water and relax for awhile while waiting on everyone . Our group was scattered out over the path between the two falls, with some stopping at another location between Turtleback and Rainbow Falls to get a different perspective. Several of the children had followed me, and Laurel was walking behind me on the path. I spotted my little “bathtub” in the gray granite and headed from the path down toward it. Showing Laurel the tub and telling her of my intentions to sit there, she immediately exclaimed that she wanted to sit in it too. I told her she could, and we sat down, with me being to her left. We took off our shoes and socks and I placed my feet into the very cold Horsepasture River.
From this point in the story, my recollections aren’t clear on everything, but I think Laurel wanted to move from where she was sitting. She stood up to go around me when she slipped and went feet first into the river. I lunged for her arm to grab her, but the current was too fast and I could not grasp her. I lunged for her again and plunged headfirst behind her into the river. I don’t remember the shock of the cold water, and before I knew it, we had plunged down a small cascade and were both underneath the water, tumbling as in a washing machine, desperately trying to reach out to each other. I was aware of three thoughts in these first frantic moments. First, I was aware that we were struggling, and I wasn’t sure if I was pushing Laurel down because I was trying to pull her up. I’m pretty sure we were caught in a vortex underneath the water, and neither one of us was able to surface, but I knew that we needed to get our heads above water. Second, I knew that we had to get to a shore so we could get out of the river, and third, I knew that the beautiful and now terrifying Rainbow Falls were somewhere close downstream from us.
All of a sudden, our heads popped out of the water and I was able to see above me in a glance that we were indeed near the shore, but that the “shore” at this point consisted of a huge granite overhang, and I quickly realized that there would be no getting out of the Horsepasture River here. I was vaguely aware of a swirl of voices and faces for just a moment, and then I was sucked under the cold green water again, swept underneath and into the swift current of the river that less than an hour ago I had looked at and knew that nobody had any business being in. Quickly, I realized that Laurel was no longer near me. The despair I felt! I knew that Laurel either must have been swept past me or had drowned. I knew I was the adult that was with her who had tried and failed to save her. The river’s mighty current was simply too strong. At this point, tired and with lungs bursting for air, I thought that if she had died that I didn’t want to be rescued, and that I didn’t think I was going to survive. I was exhausted from the struggle of being underwater in this cold river for what seemed like an eternity, and knew I couldn’t go on much longer.
I really can’t say how this next sequence of events happened, but I must have surfaced again and somehow been carried by the current closer to the left side of the river-where the path and people were, and there was a dark-haired young man wearing red swimming trunks who reached out and grabbed a hold of the corner of my shorts, thus pulling me out of the current and to safety amongst the boulders near the edge. What I didn’t know after Laurel and I went in the river was that just minutes before our mishap, a trio of three young hikers, brother and sister Drew and Fleming Kennedy from Columbia, SC and Mike Fuller from Cary, NC, had just reached the area around Turtleback Falls and were trying to decide if they wanted to get into the water or not when they saw us go in. Apparently, they sprang into action with amazing speed, because when Laurel and I first surfaced, they were already at an area of the rocks next to the river with a branch that was described later to me as the size of a small tree - that just “happened” to be right there next to the river. They were shouting at us to swim over and grab onto the branch. Thankfully, Laurel was able to comprehend what they were saying and was somehow able to push off and grasp the branch, thus being pulled out and rescued. However, when I went back under the water, Mike went into the river by himself, standing near a large rock that jutted into the river from the shore and pulled me out. He risked his life to do this for me. I know without a doubt that without their quick thinking and heroic efforts, neither Laurel nor myself would be alive today. I believe there is no such thing as luck or chance meetings - Almighty God is in control and allows everything to happen for a reason, and I believe that He allowed our paths to cross that fateful day so that all of us who were there - our friends and family and any other eyewitnesses to this event could have a testimony to share with others.
There is one more thing to add to this testimony. Later that evening, when we were back at our campsites, Laurel’s mother told me that she said that I had spoken to her while we were in the river. Thinking to myself that we had been underwater almost the entire time, I asked what Laurel had told her. “Mrs. Lisa said not to worry, that everything was going to be all right” was the first thing that she told her mother, and the second thing was “Mrs. Lisa told me to get on her back”. I looked at her and said, “You know that we were underwater during that time and there would be no way that I could have spoken those words where she could comprehend them.” I am convinced that an angel spoke those words to Laurel, and that she did indeed climb up on my back when we were caught underwater in the vortex, and that this action brought both of us up from under the water. I’m pretty sure we would have drowned right there without this happening.
1 Thessalonians 5:16-18
Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.
Many are the plans in a man’s heart, but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails