The sun slipped behind the mountains and darkness fell as Kevin DePaolo lay in the icy sand, a rock weighing up to 10,000 pounds pressing against his right leg in the California mountains.
As the hours passed, I oscillated between a zen-like calm and a haunting terror that rescue would never come.
At his lowest moment, he asked his friend, who was next to him, to call his mother and say, “That's it. I'm going to die up here. There's no way I'm going to get over it.”
But his friend refused.
Help finally arrived, in the form of Inyo County Search and Rescue, which led a daring operation, freeing Mr. DePaolo after he had spent approximately 10 hours trapped under the rock.
In his first interview since the accident, which occurred on December 5, DePaolo said he felt like he had been “given a second chance at life.”
That day, DePaolo and his friend, Josh Nelson, had hiked to a spot near Santa Rita Flat, in California's Inyo Mountains, to look for “cool rocks.”
He was digging in the sand on the steep slope, about a foot below the rock, when it broke loose and rolled down, crashing directly into him.
The rock, which he estimated was the size of a grand piano and several times heavier, knocked him over, DePaolo said.
“It was like being hit by a refrigerator,” he said.
DePaolo, 26, and Nelson, 38, pushed and managed to move the rock enough to remove it from his chest and free his left leg. But her right leg was trapped, and trying to pull it out only made the rock fall on her harder.
“I could feel the weight of the rock falling harder and harder on my leg. He was screaming, in agonizing, crazy pain,” DePaolo said, adding that the rock pinned him down by the ankle and knee.
Equally worrying was his left leg, which had taken the brunt of the impact when the rock slammed into him and was left “completely torn.”
“I could see all these weird things on my leg that you're not supposed to see,” he said.
Nelson called 911, prompting a multi-agency rescue operation led by Inyo County Search and Rescue.
While they waited for rescuers to locate them in the miles of remote wilderness, Nelson (who said that, as a climber, he had been in some “pretty devastating accidents” before and had some experience in keeping his wits about him) looked after Mr. DePaolo and tried to keep him calm.
He tied his sweater around Mr. DePaolo's bleeding left leg, lit a fire and put warm clothes on him.
Around 10 p.m., lights pierced the darkness, announcing the arrival of the rescue team, DePaolo said.
Two rescuers arrived by helicopter, while seven more followed in vehicles, navigating a network of four-wheel drive roads, Inyo County Search and Rescue said in a statement.
To remove the rock from DePaolo's leg, rescuers set up a complicated system of ropes and pulleys. The precarious operation used a system of pulleys anchored to a rock further down the slope to move the rock away, while a jack lifted it in increments, Nelson said.
“If any point in the connection between the cat and the rock had failed or something had happened, the thing would have just crashed on top of him,” Nelson said. “It was a very delicate balance.”
A Navy medic rappelled from a helicopter from the U.S. Naval Air Station Lemoore and lifted Mr. DePaolo, who was airlifted to a hospital in Fresno, where he immediately underwent surgery.
Mr. DePaolo broke his pelvis in two places, severed the femoral artery in his left leg, and his “femur slammed into the pelvis on the left side.” He didn't break any bones in his legs, something he attributes to being on sand and not rock.
Although he has recovered well enough to be able to leave the hospital soon, he has not regained feeling in his right foot and fears he may suffer serious nerve damage.
But he didn't lose his leg, something he didn't even realize he was on the verge of until a doctor told him several days into his recovery. When she heard that, “I just burst into tears,” she said.
He thanked everyone for their participation in the rescue.
“I'm very grateful to be alive,” he said. “It made me realize that life is very precious.”
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