When seniors Nathan Hannum and Ben Stewart and sophomore Jeremiah Nason left for fall break, they planned to spend the weekend in Austin, Texas. After visiting the Texas State Fair in Dallas that Friday, they decided to stay near the Dallas/Fort Worth area to camp and rock climb instead. They found a rock wall over Lake Whitney, south of Fort Worth, and rappelled down. After what Hannum described as an easy climb, they decided to attempt a more challenging route before the sun went down.
The three moved closer to the end of the rock wall, where they began their ascent. Nason was the first to reach the top, where he waited for the other two. Having fallen in the water during an earlier attempt, Stewart struggled to climb the wall, clinging to one spot for an estimated 15 minutes. Finally making his way up the wall again, he reached for a rock, which broke as he grabbed it, and he collapsed into the water. Exhausted from his time on the wall, Stewart knew he would not be able to climb the rappelling rope to the top. Bogged down by wet climbing shoes, he began to struggle against choppy water and strong winds toward a crude ladder made of used tires, which he guessed to be about 200 yards away from their rope. He had not gone far when the muscles in the right side of his body began to cramp up. The water from the lake had eroded the first few feet of the wall, leaving no grip for Stewart to cling to as he struggled to keep his head above the water.
“He had probably gotten 10 or 15 yards toward the ladder, and he just goes under and comes back up flailing and coughing,” Hannum said. “On top of all his muscles being dead he had this cramp that made it so he couldn’t swim.”
Hannum jumped into the water from his spot on the wall, while Nason, from the top of the wall, jumped straight to Stewart. As Nason pulled Stewart toward the rope, Hannum began swimming toward the ladder to find help. While Nason hooked Stewart into the rope to hang above the water, they heard Hannum calling out. After securing Stewart to the rope, Nason swam after Hannum. “When I broke down was on that rope hearing Nathan scream and thinking that both of them were going to die because of me,” Stewart said.
In the middle of the 200-yard gap between the rope and the ladder, Hannum had nothing to help him stay afloat.
“At this point I knew that I was drowning,” Hannum said. “I was just flailing, just trying to keep my head above the water. I tried everything that I thought I could, but I just couldn’t do anything because I had no strength. I couldn’t move my body.”
Nason reached Hannum and held him up with the support of the wall. At that moment, a man with a dog leash appeared at the top of the rock wall. He dropped the leash to the two, guiding them to the ladder as they clung to the leash. As the two clung to the ladder, the man was able to flag down a boat. The people in the boat picked the two up before collecting Stewart, still strapped into the rappelling rope. They waited with the three until an ambulance showed up, which transported Hannum – who had vomited water – to a hospital, where he was given oxygen and underwent scans and x-rays. He was discharged that night, and the three attended church the next morning, where they heard a sermon over the importance of friendship and the sacrifice of Christ.
“(The speaker) used friendship to relate to Christ being the one who left the safety of Heaven, which was like Jeremiah leaving the safety of the rope to go save us as we were drowning,” Stewart said.