Wednesday, November 30, 2011

When seemingly harmless decisions open the door to tragedy

When I learned an award-winning, beloved teacher from Maize High had died in a zip-lining accident a few weeks ago, I was stunned. And angry.

She was home on maternity leave, and was fatally injured when she lost her grip on the handle bars of the zip line set up on a friend's property, falling 20 feet to the ground.

"How could she be so reckless? So careless?" I thought.

Especially with a 5-week-old baby at home, along with her older children and her husband of less than a year.

But then my thoughts turned to that April day in Utah about 15 years ago, when I was out visiting my youngest sister. Her husband wanted to show us where he took her on their first date - and where he would later propose.

It was in a park, but - this being the Salt Lake City area, surrounded by the Wasatch Mountains - the journey to that spot now fabled in family lore involved a hike. And rocks. And elevation.

Up, up, up the side of a rock face. It didn't seem that bad going up, even though there was no clear path marked - and also no fence or other protection on the edge.

I didn't realize how much trouble I was in until we started down.

Suddenly the "trail" looked more like a remarkably sheer rock face that quickly dropped 30 to 40 feet to the gurgling creek below. This flatlander had no experience at all with rock climbing, and I froze. I made the mistake of glancing down, which only heightened my fear.

"I'm going to die on my first day of vacation," I thought as I gripped the rocks, my legs feeling like cast iron.

I began praying fervently for calm, and clear-headedness, and divine assistance in figuring how and where to safely place each foot.

I was ashamed and embarrassed, because the other three in the group - my sister and her husband, and her best friend Colleen - were waiting for me to start down so they could follow. I painstakingly found foothold after foothold, gradually working down to where the terrain flattened out. It felt like it took hours, though in reality it was only a few minutes.

Once I had reached an area where I could comfortably stand on two feet, Allen and Colleen scampered down the same terrain as if they were billy goats who grew up on the side of the mountain. Hop, hop, foot plant, hop. Done. I felt like a complete idiot, until I realized Colleen had been born and raised in the area and Allen had lived there for years. My sister trailed behind, slowly picking her way as I had.

It was easy to see who was from Kansas in this group. But I also knew that one slip of the foot - or one misplaced step - could have easily resulted in a story about a Wichita journalist killed while vacationing in Utah.

And it silenced my internal criticism/questioning of why and how a tragic incident such as falling from a zip line could occur for someone who clearly had so much to offer and so many depending on her. Maybe she'd done it several times before and never had a problem. Maybe others egged her on, insisting she had nothing to worry about.

I later learned that the actual path to the point where Allen intended to take us was closed because snow still blocked the route, so he led us on another way to get there. It was a route not designed for public use, for what became obvious reasons. He'd had no trouble navigating it in the past, though, and presumed we wouldn't, either.

Fortunately, that lapse in judgement didn't harm anyone. But it so easily could have.