COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Charma Brown was rolling in her wheelchair along the lower trail at Conkle's Hollow State Nature Preserve one day when she saw a boy and girl climbing on a rock.
"I said, 'Hey, get off that rock. You don't want to fall.' They looked at me funny. I said, 'The reason I'm in this chair is because I fell from up there.'"
Brown doesn't remember the Sept. 9, 2006, accident. When she awoke afterward, her first, panicked thought was that she had overslept and was late for her first-shift job at Burger King.
"I opened my eyes and realized I was in a hospital room. I tried to get up. I couldn't move my legs," she said recently.
A nurse entered the room, and Brown noticed the concerned look on her face.
"I said, 'What happened?'"
"Honey," she said, "you had an accident. You fell off a cliff."
That day in September, Brown and a friend had hiked the Rim Trail near the Upper Falls area of Conkle's Hollow. Brown left the trail and stepped over a wooden barrier to peer closer at the waterfall. She slipped and plummeted about 50 feet, landing on a rock shelf along the cliff face.
A couple who saw her fall summoned help. Members of the Hocking Hills Rope Rescue Team rushed there with their ropes, carabiners and harnesses. Several rappelled down the cliff carrying first-aid supplies. They fastened a neck collar around the unconscious hiker and started an IV, placed her on a backboard and into a basket, and signaled the team members at the top to begin the lift.
A medical helicopter picked her up for the flight to Ohio State University's Wexner Medical Center.
That's where Brown woke up to find that she was paralyzed from the chest down, all because she stepped off the trail for a closer look at the waterfall — something, she admitted, she had done many times before while hiking in the park.
Now Brown has become a safety advocate. She plans to videotape a public-service announcement with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources that will be promoted on social media and elsewhere, cautioning hikers to stay on marked trails.
Paul Baker II, assistant manager of Hocking Hills State Park and a park-officer supervisor, remembers Brown well. Baker was her attendant during the rescue, harnessed to the basket in a standing position alongside the patient as other members of the rescue team lifted the load.
Baker and the rope team also cannot forget other people they have rescued from cliff falls or from being stranded on a ledge, unable to make their way back to the trail.
Last year, the area off the trails was deadly for some in the Hocking Hills region about 50 miles southeast of Columbus. Three people were killed falling off cliffs between April 27 and May 20, including two hikers at Hocking Hills State Park and a rock rappeller in Hocking State Forest. Their bodies were recovered without rope rescue.
Since last year, state officials have installed additional signs and fences to remind the more than 1 million people who visit Hocking Hills State Park annually to stay on the marked trails.
"We've never had a serious accident or fatality from the trail," said park naturalist Pat Quackenbush, a member of the rope-rescue team. "If you stay on the trail, you're safe."
The team has 27 members. Many are park officers from different state parks in the region — including Hocking Hills, Burr Oak, Lake Hope and Tar Hollow — who are required to respond to cliff falls and other emergencies as part of their jobs, Baker said.
Others, however, including Quackenbush, some park maintenance workers and some Hocking County paramedics, joined because they enjoy rope-rescue work. At various times, the team also has included local firefighters. Team members are paid their regular wages from the state or the county for time spent on rope rescues.
The team responds to cliff falls countywide, not only in state parks, and rescues people from areas that cannot be reached on foot. Sometimes, the work turns from rescue to recovery, as it did on Jan. 1, 2012. Shortly after midnight, Cody L. Martin, 22, of Logan, drove an all-terrain vehicle off a cliff at a farm. The team brought up his body.
The team has rescued three people so far this year. A 28-year-old hiker from Rockbridge fell about 30 feet in the Cantwell Cliffs area on Feb. 18 and is recovering from serious injuries. On May 3, the team rescued two women, ages 19 and 20, who wandered off the trail and down onto a rock ledge in the Lower Falls area of Old Man's Cave and couldn't climb back up, Baker said.
On average, he said, the rope team is summoned for five or six rescues annually for people who fall or get stranded. Carryout rescues, which number 35 to 40 annually, are more common, he said, and range from someone with a sprained ankle to more-serious incidents.
The organized rope team originated about 40 years ago, said Philip Stanley, who helped establish it when he was a park officer.
Before then, recalled Stanley, now retired, "Evidently there weren't as many people falling off cliffs." But in the early 1970s, as more young people visited the park drinking alcohol, using drugs and wandering off trails, cliff falls suddenly increased to 44 annually, he said. Many were in tough-to-reach areas. "I've got to do something," he recalled thinking.
Stanley began with little more than ropes and carabiners. He gradually mustered more equipment and professional training for the team members. He also pushed for more signs and foot patrols, and wrote more citations to hikers who were off the trail. The changes helped reduce the number of cliff falls, he said.
The park officers continue to issue warnings and citations to keep hikers on the trails. Of 6,079 warnings issued last year in Hocking Hills State Park, Baker estimated half were for going off a trail. Officers issue citations — they're minor misdemeanors, punishable by a maximum $100 fine — for the most-serious offenses, such as diving off rocks into waterfall pools, he said.
Two weeks after Brown awoke in the hospital, she was transferred to Dodd Hall Inpatient Rehabilitation at Ohio State University in Columbus to learn how to live life in a wheelchair. She was depressed and often in tears. Here she was, someone who used to run up the side of Carlisle Hill in Chillicothe every day for fitness, and now she couldn't move her legs.
She kept at it, however, and learned how to transfer herself from bed to wheelchair, how to dress herself and negotiate a kitchen, and how to do wheelies onto curbs.
"I had to learn to live life from a seated position," she said.
Brown enrolled at Ohio University's Chillicothe campus and earned a bachelor's degree. She plans to go on for a master's degree and possibly a doctorate in counseling and education, get licensed and open a practice. She envisions counseling a range of people, but especially those newly disabled with spinal-cord injuries.
Now 33 and living in a wheelchair-accessible apartment in Chillicothe, Brown works hard to stay fit, using floor stretches, pushups and balance exercises. She still loves visiting Conkle's Hollow.
Brown hopes to convey a solid safety message in the public-service announcement. She will remind people to stay on the designated trails.
"People get captivated by how pretty it is," she said, "and forget how dangerous it can be with one slip or one step. I just want people to be more aware."
"This was my mistake, and I don't want it to happen to anyone else."
Information from: The Columbus Dispatch, http://www.dispatch.com