Martin Peter Ferrero sat up in his bed at Suburban Hospital Friday night and talked about his encounter with disaster earlier in the week. The 18-year old senior at Seneca Valley High School said he considers himself lucky.
The previous Monday the inexperienced rock climber had decided to try his luck on the cliffs on the Maryland side of the Potomac River, off the Billy Goat Trail below Great Falls. His father, Edward Ferrero, went along to supervise. Shortly after the younger Ferrero began his descent, his rope came loose and he slipped and fell 40 feet to the bottom of the cliff.
Two hours after the fall the Gaithersburg resident was at Suburban, the first person to be rescued by a firefighter Special Evacuation Tactics (SET) team since its founding eight months ago. The team, set up to deal with crises in high places, is made up of volunteers from Montgomery County's 18 fire-fighting organizations and rescue squads.
"One moment I was rappelling," Ferrero says. "Then my rope just kind of came with me. I thought I was floating."
The horrified father watched as his son hit the rocky ground; the youth was still conscious, but dazed. "Stay there, don't move," Edward Ferrero shouted. He then asked a young couple nearby to keep a watch on his son while he ran up to the canal tow path to get help.
A National Park Service ranger contacted the Cabin John Park Volunteer Fire Department, which had a truck nearby. At the same time, a dozen SET team members and the Park Police were called to the area, and Suburban was notified to prepare for Ferrero's arrival.
Josh Vayer, deputy chief of the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Rescue Squad and founder of the SET team, said later that while his 23-member group has been called to previous accidents, Ferrero was the first person who needed to be actually rescued by the rope and rigging specialists.
By the time Vayer and SET team member Ed Bickham climbed down a narrow ledge to reach Ferrero, an emergency medical technician from Cabin John had already gotten down the cliff to the youth's side.
It could not be determined just how badly Ferrero was hurt, but he clearly had a head injury. "We had significant reason to be concerned about his condition," Vayer recalled.
Vayer and Bickham carefully lifted Ferrero into a rescue basket rigged to the top of the cliff and SET team members began pulling Ferrero slowly to the top. Once there, they carried the youth half a mile over rough terrain, where a four-wheel-drive vehicle was waiting to take him to a Park Police helicopter parked a mile away.
Within minutes, the helicopter landed at Suburban Hospital and a medical trauma team there took over.
That night, Ferrero went into surgery for a skull fracture. During the operation, doctors elevated a depression on his skull and removed a small part of the crushed bone.
On Friday night in his hospital bed, Ferrero smiled and said, "I won't be doing any more rappelling."
And he added, "I feel either I'm really lucky or I'm really tough. And I think I'm really lucky."
But Vayer expects to be back at that stretch of the river soon.
"With the spring season coming up, we expect to be there many more times," he said. "I think the potential is there for us to be out on the rocks again."