William Hickman, the 13-year-old Burien boy who was rescued Sunday from a ledge just feet from 265-foot Wallace Falls, said that he's fortunate he walked away from the ordeal with little more than cuts and scrapes on his feet. "I think the rescuers should feel like heroes; they saved me. I'm lucky to be alive."
As the icy Wallace River pulled William Hickman inexorably toward an ultimate 265-foot plunge, the teen quickly thought of the advice from a favorite fantasy-novel character who faced a similar predicament: “Go feet first, stay to the sides and kick off the rocks.”
“I didn’t know what to do,” the 13-year-old recalled Monday. “I thought about anything I knew about falling down a river, and I remembered the book.”
After slipping into the fast-moving river during a hike Saturday afternoon above Wallace Middle Falls, Hickman heeded the advice of the book’s hero and rode feet first down a 10-foot waterfall, trying to avoid the center of the river where the current was at its strongest. But he didn’t avoid all rocks, grabbing one only feet from the towering falls, a move that likely saved the Burien boy’s life.
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And there he clung, inches above the water and precariously close to the falls, a popular Gold Bar-area hiking destination that has claimed many lives. That he was able to talk about the ordeal Monday is a tribute to the Snohomish County search-and-rescue personnel who reached Hickman and eventually used teamwork, ingenuity and a helicopter to pull him to safety.
“He was in a very, very dangerous spot,” said Snohomish County sheriff’s Sgt. Danny Wickstrom, who oversees the agency’s search-and-rescue operations. He said almost all operations that rescuers have conducted that close to Wallace Falls involved a fatality.
In author D.J. MacHale’s popular Pendragon Adventure books, fictional character Bobby Pendragon finds himself in a variety of harrowing situations. Hickman now has his own real-life amazing feat to share with classmates at Burien’s Sylvester Middle School.
“I feel lucky I got through it all,” Hickman said. “I think the rescuers should feel like heroes; they saved me. I’m lucky to be alive.”
Hickman said trouble began almost immediately after he stepped into the river Saturday. He had planned to swim, or at least wade, in the water all afternoon. Once he saw a calm spot in the river he hopped off the trail, kicked off his shoes and walked in to his knees. His 9-year-old brother, Patrick, planned to follow.
But Hickman slipped — and was carried off. His brother, his father and his father’s friend were unable to help.
Hickman replayed the advice of Bobby Pendragon when he also found himself in treacherous — albeit fictional — current. “He just went feet first and tried to stay off to the side and kicked off rocks, so he didn’t hit his head,” Hickman said.
The whitewater carried the teen feet first, but he wasn’t able to negotiate where he wound up in the river because of the power of the current. He was carried over a 10-foot waterfall to a ledge only feet from two more waterfalls, the third a 265-foot drop.
Hickman said he managed to pull himself onto the ledge. His father, also named William Hickman, yelled words of encouragement and threw him a towel. The elder Hickman also threw him a dry T-shirt and his jacket, which Hickman wrapped around his bare legs.
His father called 911.
Once on the ledge, the teen cried. He thought he was going to die, said his mother, Heather Hickman.
Hickman’s precarious perch was across the river from the hiking trail, in steep, forested terrain. In between was 20 feet of churning water that prevented rescuers from reaching the shivering teen.
Hickman’s back was pressed against a steep rock overhang, and the ledge on which he balanced was so narrow that, when he crouched down, water lapped at his toes. The teen said he was incredibly uncomfortable and the river appeared to be rising on him. The overhang angled so steeply, it was impossible to stand.
A sheriff’s helicopter lowered two rescuers about 200 yards downstream Saturday evening. After several attempts to swing in under the overhang, the rope sawed against the rock edge and snapped. Rescuer Oyvind Henningsen fell into the water, but a safety rope held by a second rescuer prevented him from going over the next section of Wallace Middle Falls.
As night fell, the rescue team found a spot above the falls where the current slackened enough that one man was able to get across and set up a rope line. The rest of the team held onto the rope as they crossed the river.
“I was thinking once it got dark they wouldn’t be able to get to me,” Hickman said.
They hiked down the hill to Hickman. Working by headlamps, the team set up ropes to lower rescuer Josh Warren down the cliff.
Ernie Zeller, part of the 50-plus-person rescue team, said he and Hickman began a dialogue by yelling back and forth. Zeller threw the teen dry clothing, a blanket, a hat, fruit snacks, Clif Bars and some hand warmers that Hickman said he couldn’t get to work.
“He’s a smart kid. He asked me if I had a plan,” Zeller said. “A couple of seconds later he asked, ‘Is your plan going to work?’ “
Rescue crews weren’t able to reach the boy until they used a 24-foot aluminum fire ladder as a makeshift bridge across the river. Lashed firmly at both ends, the ladder formed a stable platform for a rescuer to stand on.
With firm footing, Warren was able to get Hickman into a harness and clip him to a rope. Other team members heaved and pulled the pair up the rock face to safety shortly after 1:30 a.m. Sunday.
It was too hazardous to get out in the dark, and everyone was tired, wet and cold. So the group hiked for about 20 minutes, then stopped to camp. A fire was built, and everyone slept for a few hours before the helicopter returned shortly after dawn. Hickman said he remembers being extremely exhausted; rescuers said it took several tries to wake him in the morning.
Seated in the helicopter, he stared out the window at the “awesome” view. Once back on firm land, he was checked out at a hospital.
On Monday, the Sheriff’s Office released a video of the rescue operation, including footage that showed how rescuers used a ladder to reach the teen.
His mother, who was not on the hike, didn’t learn about her son’s ordeal and brush with death until the boy’s father called Sunday morning.
“His first phone call should have been 911. His second call should have been to me,” Heather Hickman said. “My son could have died. I have raised my kids, and I intend to see them grow old.”
She said her two sons won’t venture near rivers any time soon.
William Hickman has other plans. He hopes to return to the Snohomish County trail just to see where he went into the water.
This time, he says, he has no plans to wade.
Seattle Times news researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report, which includes information from Times archives.
Jennifer Sullivan: 206-464-8294
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