When Covenant College freshman Matthew Gidney woke up this Sunday, he expected to enjoy an afternoon in Chattanooga’s scenic surroundings. What he didn’t expect was to fall more than 40 feet onto rocks while exploring Rainbow Falls, leaving him hospitalized with major bleeding and multiple serious injuries.
18-year-old Gidney was airlifted to Erlanger Hospital after a four-hour long evacuation that required three rescue teams. He and six other Covenant students were exploring Rainbow Falls near Signal Mountain when he fell at approximately 1:00 p.m. on Sunday.
Gidney was making his way towards the top of the waterfall along the edge of the rock face when he slipped. Thankfully, he landed feet first, preventing severe head trauma.
Fellow student Will Friesen was the first of the group to reach Gidney. Friesen immediately realized the severity of the situation when he saw the amount of blood coming from Gidney’s face and from the back of his head. After confirming that he was breathing, Friesen supported his head until the rest of the group arrived at his side.
“Logic would say he was dead or in much worse shape from that fall. I didn’t really know what to expect when I got there. It was pretty traumatic,” said Friesen.
Gidney suffered from memory loss and drifted in and out of consciousness during the first few minutes after the fall. He had no breathing problems.
A man nearby called 911 while Gidney’s friends made their way to his side. They comforted and prayed with him while they waited for help to come. The first rescue team arrived at the site of the fall in approximately 30 minutes.
“We didn’t know if he would survive even those first thirty minutes,” said Covenant student Daniel Hogue. “We thought he could have internal bleeding or brain damage. Knowing what we know now, it’s a miracle it wasn’t worse.”
The Signal Mountain Fire Department first responded to the 911 call and requested a Mutual Aid Response for additional manpower. Hamilton County EMS provided first aid to stop the blood loss before the evacuation began.
Gidney was secured in a medical litter during the slow and careful evacuation process. Two rope pulley systems were used to pull the litter up the steep and hazardous terrain. The trail from the Rainbow Lake parking lot down to the falls is less than a mile long.
One team arrived and began cutting down trees in order to widen the trail while the other teams were still administering first aid. The rescue teams did most of the work of carrying Gidney to safety; the other Covenant students were only asked to help operate the pulley system.
Gidney was airlifted to Erlanger Hospital at approximately 5:30 p.m., about four and a half hours after the first 911 call reporting the fall came in. 20-year-old David Ragland, a Covenant sophomore who was one of the other six students with Gidney on Sunday, called the evacuation “an excruciatingly slow process,” but made it clear that Gidney kept an extraordinary attitude throughout.
Despite not having been given pain medication before the evacuation, Gidney had incredibly high spirits during the whole process. “He didn’t complain, accuse or criticize anyone. He even asked us to pray for God to give his parents a sense of peace,” said Ragland.
Gidney suffered severely broken heels and feet from his landing, although his Achilles tendons remained intact. He sustained multiple other injuries from the fall including a punctured shin, a broken left knee, fractured feet, minor fractures to the back, a broken nose, lost teeth, a cut to the back of the head, and extensive bruises. He also bit his bottom lip completely off.
As of Monday night, physicians had performed minor cleaning surgeries and stitched his lip. Operations on Gidney’s feet and knees are expected to take place during the week.
Three of Gidney’s friends stayed with him at the hospital for part of Sunday night. Monday night, the whole group visited Gidney. “It was so healing to all be together again for the first time. We actually had fun,” said Ragland. Will Friesen said that Gidney was “in high spirits, laughing and cracking the group up.”