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Hiker recalls daring rescue after 48-hour ordeal

Endurance runner Jim Williamson, 49, fell into a narrow canyon on Red Mountain in Utah and was stuck there for more than 48 hours before rescuers arrived in a daring helicopter landing. “These guys are top of the heap,” Williamson said of the rescue team.
/ Source: TODAY contributor

After spending more than two days trapped at the bottom of a canyon, drifting in and out of consciousness, endurance runner Jim Williamson narrowly escaped death thanks to a risky helicopter rescue and his own experience as a rescue pilot.

The 49-year-old father of two was running along a trail on Red Mountain in Utah on Sunday when he slipped and fell into a narrow crevice.

“Somewhere around 12 to 2 that afternoon, I guess I lost consciousness. I have no idea what happened from that point until I started coming to on Monday evening,” Williamson told Natalie Morales on TODAY Tuesday.

“And at that point I heard a helicopter, and it reminded me of when I did search-and-rescue work myself. So I said [to myself], ‘The chopper’s leaving. Sounds like it’s the last load out, and I’m not on it,’ ” Williamson recalled.

Daring landingA helicopter had indeed flown by looking for Williamson, but rescuers could not see him. That’s when his experience as a former rescue pilot kicked in, and he dragged himself about 60 feet into a clearing.

“Into that night I worked and squirmed [to] where they could see me, and I waved my hat,” said Williamson, whose jaw is wired shut because of his injuries.

In a death-defying maneuver, veteran pilot Terry Mercer was able to land the 37-foot chopper atop a 25-foot red rock pinnacle nearly a dozen times to ferry medical personnel and rescuers to the site. Mercer, who appeared on TODAY along with Williamson and Lt. Cory Pulsipher of the Washington County Sheriff’s Office, told Morales that had he been unable to land on the pinnacle, the rescue could have taken much longer — precious time the crew didn’t have if Williamson were to survive.

“Where he was, it was very difficult. It could have taken us all day, but we got it down to a couple of hours,” Mercer explained.

Williamson, in fact, was critically injured and hanging on by a thread. Having landed on his face during the fall, the runner had broken his jaw and lost four teeth. His upper palate was separated, and his nose and forehead smashed. He had also injured his shoulder and still has trouble moving the left side of his body.

‘Top of the heap’Pulsipher praised Mercer and the 108 volunteers who spent a total of 330 hours working to save Williamson’s life.

“These guys are the top of the heap,” said a grateful Williamson of the search-and-rescue team. 

Despite his serious injuries, Williamson has kept his sense of humor and remained positive throughout his ordeal. A biology and English teacher at Canyon Hills Youth Center in Salt Lake City, he asked the nurse to take photos of the surgery so he could show them to his students in class. “They had to pull my face down to get [it] in there,” he said.

And even after his harrowing ordeal, Williamson, who runs up to 100 miles at a time, said he’ll be hitting the trail again when he is able.

“I will be out running — as soon as I can get that left side working again,” he said.