Brad Woodford didn't even think twice before helping a complete stranger who fell while rock climbing Labor Day weekend. But he doesn't really consider himself a hero.
"I mean, I helped out, but I don't feel like I saved his life," he said. "I just did what I had to do."
Woodford, sophomore in recreation and leisure studies, was climbing with some friends from The University of Tennessee at Torrent Falls, a section of Red River Gorge in East Kentucky, over the holiday weekend.
Woodford was belaying, or stabilizing, the rope for another climber from the ground. About 20 feet away, John Keller, a climber from Michigan, was nearing the top of his climb and fell trying to reach the final hand-hold of the route. Keller's belayer had allowed too much slack into the rope - not allowing her to properly support him - and he fell more than 50 feet to the ground.
Woodford said he saw the entire thing happen, but his training as a Wildlife First Responder sent him immediately into action.
"I watched him all the way down," he said. "It was certainly the worst thing I've ever seen. I saw his facial expression, I saw him bounce and let out blood-curdling screams. After that, it wasn't really chaos. It was more of everyone running around trying to help. Luckily, we were close to a cabin with a phone, and were able to call 911.
"The first thing I did was take a step back and think as I was trained to do," he said. "I made sure my climber finished the climb and was safe. Then, I just went back through my training and took the necessary actions."
Adam Sylvester, graduate student in anthropology, was with Woodford on the climb. He said that Woodford took immediate and appropriate action, which helped the emergency personnel upon their arrival.
"He introduced himself to the victim and informed him that he was a Wilderness First Responder," he said. "He then began assessing his injuries and taking his vital signs, recording the extent of the injuries and continued to take vital signs every five minutes until emergency personnel arrived.
"He also directed other climbers on how they could be most useful. His contribution to controlling the scene, evaluating and comforting the injured climber and helping emergency personnel can't be overestimated."
Keller suffered a shattered right elbow, a shattered left heel, several broken fingers and ribs and some bruised vertebrae. Woodford said he considers Keller extremely lucky.
"Luckily there was no spinal damage or internal bleeding," he said. "He really was a lucky guy. If he had landed differently, that could have been it."
Woodford has been climbing for only two years, and he said an article he read in National Geographic was his inspiration. He works at the T-RECS facility overseeing the climbing wall and assisting climbers with technique, skill and safety issues.
Brett Davis, director of Outdoor Recreation, said Woodford's passion for climbing is evident in his growth and his training made it possible for him to respond on the day of the accident.
"What's different for Brad is he is passionate about something," he said. "He wants to learn everything he can. He's going out and getting the certifications he needs. He's only a sophomore, and here he is doing all these things. His climbing ability has grown tremendously. He's excited about it, and he wants to learn about it and do it the right way. My role is to help promote that passion and help continue to give him avenues to grow.
"By working here and knowing this is what he wants to do with his life, it forces him to think of the others more so than what any recreational climber would," Davis said. "He is used to being in charge of people's safety here, and he has that mindset."
Woodford said the climbing opportunities were a major aspect that brought him to UT.
"My dad went to school here, and I knew the area," he said. "At UT you have great, world-class climbing within three or four hours in any direction. That's the reason I came to school here."
Whether he feels like hero or not, Woodford plans to continue learning and training to be a guide for other climbers after graduation. He climbs every weekend, and said he hopes to work as a guide out west this summer.
Woodford said the most important rule for a climber is to learn the proper and safe techniques.
"Accidents happen sometimes, but they don't have to," he said. "I have fallen off rocks before, but my partner had me stabilized correctly, and I didn't feel at risk. You really can't worry about getting the best equipment - you have to get good instruction. Learn how to do things right the first time, and accidents like these won't happen."