Sean Garber’s hands started to slip from a granite overhanging about 100 feet off the ground in Stone Mountain Park as the son of his youth pastor screamed out ,"No! Sean!" and reached his arm out as fear spread across his face.
Garber, a recent Alcovy High graduate who was hiking Stone Mountain with three others around noon on Tuesday, was free-falling. He went from facing the mountain to twisting his body around in order to see the rapidly approaching ground and the area where his friend had fallen just a second earlier.
Garber said he was flailing his arms before he hit the ground, only seeing his feet before passing out.
The next thing Garber knew he was waking up in a dry, rocky area about 5 feet from where he saw his hiking companion, Jason Landress, who lay close to a lake, unconscious.
"I woke up and then screamed in pain, and I told (my youth pastor) to call the ambulance." Garber said. "I checked my body to see if I was all right and noticed blood pouring down my face. My ankle was swollen, my arm hurt; I had a bunch of scrapes, and there was blood all over my shirt."
Once he was able, Garber, 17, limped over to Landress, 18, to make sure he had awakened.
"I think if he would have gone to sleep, he might have gone into a coma," Garber said.
Shortly after that, medical personnel were led to Landress and Garber, and television crews descended to Stone Mountain Park, broadcasting live images of the rescue and posting updates on social media. Garber was taken by ambulance to Gwinnett Medical Center, where his right arm was placed in a splint, his ankle was x-rayed, and his lacerations, including a large gash above his right eye, were cleaned up.
Garber was released from the hospital about seven hours after his day started, a day on which he was just trying to take advantage of some of the rare sunny weather the area has seen in recent weeks.
The youth pastor of his Monroe County church was taking his 12-year old son hiking in Stone Mountain and asked if Garber and Landress wanted to come along. Garber had never been hiking around Stone Mountain and wanted to explore the area, taking a break from his job working in plumbing with his pastor.
The hike started off leisurely, with the group talking, admiring the scenery and taking photographs of the area. While walking, the foursome inadvertently went into the restricted area without seeing any signs, according to Garber.
Rising in elevation, the path the group was walking on then turned steep – about a 20-degree angle, according to Garber – and it became too difficult for them to walk upright. Garber decided to crawl across on his knees, his pastor was on all fours, and Landress was trying to crab-walk (facing upward with his back parallel to the ground, using his hands and feet to move) across the stone of the mountain. Landress reached a wet area and began to slide downward. Garber rushed to try to grab his friend.
"I caught up right when he fell off," Garber said. "I tried to stop myself as fast as I could, and turned on my stomach and tried to find the driest place to grab, but my hands were too wet and I fell off."
According to an Associated Press report, the fall was the first incident on the back side of Stone Mountain Park in 15 years.
"They were very lucky to not be killed," said Stone Mountain Park police spokesman John Bankhead to the AP.
As Landress was having surgery at Atlanta Medical Center Thursday, park officials told the AP they are considering extra safety features near the mountain’s granite back side, such as painted lines. The area isn’t fenced off, but has signs, that Bankhead told the AP are routinely stolen.
Garber said there were no signs in the area he was exploring Tuesday, leading to that journey over the slippery granite.
While Garber’s wounds were being tended to, his Facebook page and cell phone inbox were quickly filling up with messages from friends who had seen him on TV and were concerned about his well-being. His father, Bill, working at Ramsey’s Produce, received a call about the fall and came to his side, while Sean’s mother, Michelle, was driving home from Jacksonville. Michelle found out first when her pastor called to tell her that her son was in the hospital. With four of her five sons in the car with her, Michelle said, "No, my boys are fine; you must have heard something wrong."
Still driving from Florida she called Bill, who said Sean slipped and fell and was OK.
"His main concern was my safety and the kids’," Michelle said.
However, Michelle decided to call Sean and when Bill answered instead, she knew something was wrong.
"I knew something was wrong when my son couldn’t pick up the phone," she said. "I have five boys, and I’ve been in the hospital with them so many times that I knew something was wrong."
She continued to drive home as Sean recovered, and he was released from the hospital around 7 p.m.
The fall had severely injured the right side of his body, but he said it won’t deter him from returning to Stone Mountain.
He appeared to be on the way to full health just after leaving the hospital, when he satisfied one of his first post-fall needs – dinner; ordering a No. 7 combination of quesadillas.