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VA: Man falls on hunt

Man falls on hunt

January 18, 2011

While lodged against a small tree 300 feet above an abandoned rock quarry in Ivanhoe two weeks ago, Thomas O’Neal experienced major realizations. One was that he might not be rescued because of limited equipment of first responders.

“Firefighters didn’t have enough rope to reach me from above,” the 26-year-old Wythe County resident noted, “and the police couldn’t get to me from below. I could feel myself slipping.”

The ordeal began around 8:46 p.m. on Jan. 4 while O’Neal was coon hunting with his wife, Chetina O’Neal, and his father-in-law, Chet Payne. The trio had permission to hunt on the property above the old quarry.

“I had borrowed a friend’s blue tick coon dog,” O’Neal said. “It’s probably worth $500 or $600. The dog went down the side of the cliff and landed on a ledge. It couldn’t get back up.”

Wearing a hard hat with an attached light, O’Neal was attempting to attach a rope to a clasp on the dog’s collar when the ground at the top of the quarry gave way. He plunged 322 feet down into the darkness.

“I finally fell against a tree with my leg twisted behind me,” O’Neal said. “My foot caught on a tree. I had a dip of snuff in my mouth when I fell. I never lost a drop of it.”

According to Chetina O’Neal, she saw her husband fall. Using her cell phone, she immediately called 911.

“I was really afraid,” Mrs. O’Neal said. “I thought I was going to be a widow and our son wouldn’t have a daddy. That’s what got to me the most.”

The O’Neals’ 1-year-old son, Hunter, was with his maternal great-grandmother, Rosetta Rosenbaum, at the time.

Responding to the emergency call were members of the Wythe County Sheriff’s Office, the Virginia State Police and the Ivanhoe Volunteer Fire Department. The Max Meadows Volunteer Fire Department arrived later and a helicopter was on standby.

Rescue workers tried frantically, Mrs. O’Neal said, to devise a way to reach her husband. They did not have enough rope to throw down to the ledge where Thomas O’Neal was hanging on for dear life, according to her, and there was no way to reach him from the bottom of the rock quarry, over 300 more feet below him.

“Rescue has not been a top priority for us as a fire department,” pointed out Robert Walk, chief of the Ivanhoe Volunteer Fire Department. “Since this happened, we’ve realized there probably is a need. There are a lot of old sink holes in this area from the mines and people could venture off the New River Trail which goes through this area.”

Finally, Asplundh tree trimming service was contacted. The company sent a worker and three 100-steps of rope latched together to throw to Thomas O’Neal.

“I was stuck on that ledge for two hours,” O’Neal recalled. “I could feel myself slipping. I kept thinking how bad is it going to hurt when I hit the bottom. I knew I was on my way to being dead.”

He was pulled to safety and transported to the emergency room at Wythe County Community Hospital for examination. O’Neal suffered no serious injuries and was released.

“I tell everybody I should be dead,” he said last week. “But I’m not. I’m glad to be alive. I’ve got a little boy to take care of.”

The incident has spurred the O’Neals to raise awareness of the need for their local fire department to have sufficient equipment. They are asking businesses, organizations and individuals to donate money to buy rope.

“We’d like to see the fire department have what it needs,” Mrs. O’Neal said. “It could mean life or death for someone.”

Another miracle, Thomas O’Neal said, was how the coon dog got off its ledge. He noted the animal was home the next day.

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