Rappelling instructor dies in fall Man slips off cliff in Ellicott City

March 29, 1992|By Kris Antonelli and Michael James | Kris Antonelli and Michael James,Staff writers

A 26-year-old National Guardsman fell 100 feet to his death yesterday after he slipped off a cliff in Ellicott City where he was demonstrating a rock-climbing technique, authorities said.

The guardsman lost his balance and fell as he prepared to instruct 10 teen-age members of a Boy Scout Explorers Post from Linthicum in a maneuver called rappelling, said Lt. Michael Gearhart, a Howard County fire and rescue services spokesman.

The victim was identified as James Hall of the 500 block of Pine Tree Road in Severna Park. He was pronounced dead shortly after being transported to Howard County General Hospital.

Lt. Gearhart said Mr. Hall, a National Guard group leader, fell off a cliff behind College Avenue -- about 200 yards east of the Ellicott City train station on Main Street -- at 2 p.m. and landed on a rock ledge.

Typically, rappelling experts use ropes and a safety harness to guide themselves down a cliff side.

Mr. Hall, who had graduated from an Army school that trained him in rappelling and mountain climbing, was wearing a safety harness at the time of the fall, rescue workers said. It could not be immediately determined why the harness was not securely attached. Officials said they would investigate whether the cause of the accident was human error or mechanical failure.

A small group of people walking on the railroad tracks beneath the rock ledge saw the guardsman fall and climbed several feet to get to him, rescue workers said. They tried to resuscitate Mr. Hall as paramedics and others rushed to the scene over railroad tracks.

"The trucks had to straddle the tracks for about 300 yards before we could get to him," Mr. Gearhart said. The rescue workers then climbed about 50 feet to reach the ledge.

The Explorer Scouts were being debriefed by a fire department sociologist trained in stress therapy relating to traumatic incidents, rescue workers said.

"They're very shaken up about the incident, obviously, and we're trying to assist them in any way we can," said Donald R. Howell, a battalion chief in the Howard County Fire Department.

Mr. Hall, who joined the National Guard seven years ago, was assigned to Company A, Second Battalion, 115th Infantry Division based in Linthicum, said spokesman Capt. Mike Milord.

The company sponsors the Explorer group as part of a community involvement program, Captain Milord said.

Mr. Hall, a 1984 graduate of Severna Park High School, was volunteering his time when the accident happened, he said.

Rock climbers often practice rappelling in the rocky area of the Patapsco River near where the accident happened, Chief Howell said.

"There are many individuals who like to rappel, and there are several areas of rocky prominence in the area," he said. "There are many good locations for vertical drops and climbing exercises."

He said numerous injuries have occurred on the cliffs over the years, but he could not recall any deaths.

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