A not-so-gentle reminder: 'One mistake can kill you'

Ohio man who spent the night stuck on the ground after fall pushes for harness use

November 20, 2010

Ron Horn is on a short leash this deer season.

He wishes he had been on one in late September.

Instead, the Ohio farmer is sitting on his porch, walker nearby, while he waits for his bones to knit and his lung to heal.

"I'm a survivor," Horn said. "It just takes one time, one mistake. One mistake can kill you."

Horn fell 20 feet from his tree stand, a deluxe model, one he built at the edge of his alfalfa field and tested before each bow season. The 64-year-old hunter spent the night on the ground, unable to move, as a soaking rain sapped the heat from his body.

By the time his young daughter found him 20 hours later, Horn was hypothermic and near death. He was airlifted to Ohio State University Medical Center, where he spent nine days being treated for a broken hip, seven broken ribs and two vertebrae. He still may need surgery to repair his back.

His message to tree-stand hunters everywhere: "Not only have your safety equipment, use it."

So far this year, three hunters have fallen to their deaths from tree stands in Maryland: Joseph Kemper Jr., 55, of York, Pa.; Dennis Arthur Siler, 44, of Port Deposit; and James Albert Newberry, 77, of Edgewater. None was wearing a safety harness when he fell.

T. Michael Newberry, the son of one of the hunters, urged those planning trips this fall to put safety first.

"I would hope that anyone using tree stands and hunting in general would use whatever precautions necessary to maintain the safety of themselves along with those around them. My dad was so conscious of gun safety and taught it to us as children, when we learned to shoot by both instruction and deed," he wrote in an e-mail to me. "It's necessary today to add climbing and tree-stand safety to those teaching their children how to hunt."

That Horn was taken to OSU's medical center was not unusual, but it does add another element to his story. A team of trauma doctors there, led by Dr. Charles Cook, recently concluded a 10-year study of hunting accidents and their causes.

Falls were responsible for 50 percent of injuries, and 92 percent of the falls were from tree stands. By comparison, 29 percent of injuries were attributed to gunshot wounds.

The study, published in The American Surgeon journal, also noted that alcohol was involved in only 2.3 percent of the cases and drug use was involved in 4.6 percent.

In a telephone interview, Cook said that tree-stand falls don't often make good cautionary tales.

"Gunshot wounds are sensational, especially when one hunter shoots another," he said. "On the other hand, tree-stand injuries only make the news when someone dies."

Cook said the medical establishment and wildlife agencies "certainly underestimate how many people fall out of trees." Hospitals lump the accidents under the general category of "fall," and many hunters are too embarrassed to tell anyone they fell from a tree.

But tree-stand falls, Cook said, "are highly morbid, with 59 percent of fall victims suffering spinal fractures, 47 percent suffering lower extremity fractures and 18 percent closed head injuries. Surgery was required in 81 percent of the cases."

The severity of the injuries shouldn't come as a surprise, Cook said, because a body falling from a stand 10 feet to 30 feet in the air can reach speeds in excess of 30 mph.

"Something has to give when a body hits the ground or a rock or log, and that something is the hunter," he said.

Of the 130 cases his team studied, 90 percent of the victims were male and the mean age was 41.

"That's why we have to get the story out to the most experienced hunters, the ones who most likely didn't take a hunter safety class and who say they don't need a safety harness because they're careful," he said.

The description fits Horn.

"I've been climbing out of stands for years and climbing barn roofs to make repairs. I've never fallen. I'm like a cat," he said. "Falling wasn't even in the back of my mind."

Horn lost his grip as he climbed out of his stand and put his bow on his shoulder. "I threw caution and my body to the wind."

Now, Horn is a true believer, and he hopes his six sons will follow his example.

"A harness in a closet or in a box won't do you any good at all if you slip," he said. "Even if you're safety-minded, one mistake will get you."

Newberry hopes that hunters who do use safety harnesses will speak up when they see someone who doesn't.

"Adding a little gentle ribbing to their friends who don't use safety gear," he said, "could mean the difference between that friend actually living or dying."

candy.thomson@baltsun.com

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