In 2016, college student Thomas Hammond plummeted off an Illinois waterfall. Today, he lives to tell
Updated: Jun 3, 2020
By Carley Olejniczak, Studio M staff //
Thomas Hammond said goodnight to his friends and zipped up his tent. He undressed, tucked his dog, Sam, in for bed and settled down for the night. He listened to rain patter against his tent, just as it had been doing all day in the Shawnee National Forest, located in Simpson, Illinois.
It was only 30 minutes later that the flood came.
Scratching and clawing at the ground, Hammond couldn’t stop the tent’s movement as it was picked up by the flow of water and rushed downstream. Hitting his head, banging his body against the rocks, Hammond was nearly drowned and unconscious as he was whipped over the rapids.
Then he was shot up and over the waterfall, and finally, plunged down into the dark waters below.
It was hard for Hammond to believe that merely hours before the accident, he was laughing with his friends, stoked for the first climb of their 10-day rock climbing excursion.
On July 5, 2016, Hammond, a sophomore in marketing and photography at Middle Tennessee State University, and his two friends, TJ Rubert and Tristan Vogel – all avid rock climbers – had set off from Middle Tennessee for a camping and climbing trip. The three trekked down I-24 in Rubert’s van with their gear and their two dogs: Sam, Hammond’s Golden Retriever mix; and Vogel’s mutt, Maya. Their adventure was scheduled to begin at Jackson Falls in the Shawnee National Forest and conclude in the Red River Gorge in Stanton, Kentucky.
After the 3 ½-hour drive and a lot of missed turns, the gang arrived at Jackson Falls and set up camp in the designated camping area, about 30 feet from a small, trickling stream barely deep enough to cover their feet. The day was filled with climbing and fun. The friends hiked and swam in the swimming hole beneath the falls, which they ironically nicknamed “Jackson Smalls,” because of the waterfall’s unimpressive size. It wasn’t until the next night that things took a turn for the worse.
During their climb on July 6, the storms rolled in.
“While we are climbing, it just dumps on us,” Hammond said. “Like buckets of water coming down, and it was pretty scary, actually.”
The three decided that it was too dangerous to continue climbing and headed back to camp, crossing over the stream as they hiked, which had already begun to rise. “Jackson Smalls” had increased dramatically in size as well.
“It was ironic, actually,” Hammond said. “As we were walking back, we were joking around about what would happen if we swam this river and if we’d survive if we jumped off this waterfall.”
Vogel, an MTSU sophomore and a wilderness first responder, gave the boys tips on what to do in that situation, teaching them the “nose up, toes up” rule of swift-water safety.
Anyone who’s been whitewater rafting can recall that every guide will tell you this same piece of advice if you ever fall in the water: Don’t fight the current, just let it take you. And keep your head above water.
Little did Hammond know that this would come in handy so soon.
Back at camp, the friends ate tacos, talked and goofed around while the rain poured down around them. Hammond and his friends decided to leave Jackson Falls early and head to the Red River Gorge in the morning. Unfortunately, the trio wouldn’t make it to their next camping destination.
“Bedtime was at about 11 p.m. That’s when s–t hit the fan,” Hammond said.
With Hammond and Sam in one tent, Vogel and Maya in the other, and TJ in his van, the friends bid each other goodnight and headed to bed. About a half hour later, though, TJ came back out to turn off his waterproof lights that he had accidentally left on. However, when he stepped outside, he saw that the nearby stream had overflowed and the campsite was under several inches of water.
“TJ ran over to where Thomas and I were sleeping and immediately began shouting for us to get out and get into the van,” Vogel said. “I woke up to the shouting and the water pushing my tent back and forth.”
Vogel gathered his belongings and his dog, and got out of his tent as six inches of water came flooding through the opening. Meanwhile, Hammond was struggling in his bed space.
“I heard Thomas swearing in distress,” Vogel said. “I thought it was kind of funny. … It wasn’t a cause for concern. … At the time, I was more concerned about my [climbing gear] getting ruined.”
While his friends were unaware of his dire predicament, Hammond’s tent was being carried away by the flow of water and was now headed downriver. What was just a tiny, bubbling stream before had now turned into a Class 4 rapid. “I was clawing at the ground, trying to stop,” Hammond said.
When the tent reached the river, it immediately sank to the bottom, trapping Hammond and Sam inside.
“I can’t rip it open,” Hammond said. “I think, ‘This is it. I’m going to die.’” Hammond can’t recall how long he was under.
“Time really does slow down,” he said. “Your thoughts become very clear, you get relaxed. You kind of accept what’s going to happen.”
Just as Hammond began to lose consciousness, a tree branch ripped his tent open, and he was able to break his head above the surface of the rushing water.
“I flashed back to what [my friends] were talking about earlier – ‘nose up, toes up,’” said Hammond. “I remember a drop,” he said.
Hammond didn’t realize that he had just been tossed over Jackson Falls. He banged his head twice as he was flung downstream and fought the urge to pass out.
“I’m so disoriented, I barely know which way is up,” he said. Clinging to a floating log, Hammond slowly made his way to the right side of the riverbank, using lightning strikes to light his way. He crawled on his hands and knees onto shore.
“This is the most terrifying thing that’s ever happened to me,” Hammond said as he recollects the moments after he struggled to dry land. “I have myself convinced that nobody knows I’m gone,” he said. “‘They’re not looking for me’ is what is going through my head.”
Luckily, Hammond couldn’t have been more wrong.
Running barefoot parallel to the river, Vogel and Rubert frantically searched for Hammond as soon as they realized his tent had been swept away. There was no cell phone service when Vogel attempted to dial 911, so they knew they had to find Hammond themselves, praying that he was even alive.
“I remember the eeriest moment of my life,” Vogel said. “was when we walked the perimeter of the swimming hole [at the bottom of the falls] and I swept my hand over the top of the water to feel for a body.”
Two hours after Hammond had been washed away, his friends finally heard his hoarse cries for help. Rubert went to his aid while Vogel drove the van out of the campsite to track down help. Rubert attempted to build a small shelter out of twigs and leaves to keep Hammond out of the still-pouring rain, and the two used their body heat to stay warm.
“Yes, we cuddled,” Hammond deadpanned. “I’m not afraid to admit it.”
Hammond was broken and bloody, yet unaware of how bad his injuries were. When he tried to examine himself in the light from Rubert’s headlamp, his friend took the light away, telling him to not look. It took four more hours for help to arrive. Vogel, along with several teams of first responders reached Hammond and carried him out of the forest on a backboard.
The sun was rising by the time Hammond was on his way to a hospital.
“I was getting ready to walk out the door to go to work when I got the call,” said David Hammond, Thomas’s father. “I was hysterical. I couldn’t think. I still can’t talk about it without crying. Your mind just takes over.”
Hammond’s mother and father both drove to St. Francis Hospital in Illinois where Hammond had been life-flighted by helicopter from the first hospital, Heartland Regional.
While Hammond was reunited with his parents, his friends returned to the site of the accident to gather up all their belongings that had been washed away in the flood. They found Hammond’s tent ripped to shreds, clothes and gear scattered about, and unfortunately, a little ways down from where Hammond had been discovered, they stumbled upon Sam. Vogel and Rubert returned Sam’s collar to Hammond since he wasn’t able to say goodbye.
After many scans and X-rays, Hammond’s injuries had been assessed and he was undergoing treatment. He sustained two fractures in his skull, several broken ribs, a collapsed lung, a hairline fracture in his right leg and two busted eardrums, along with several scrapes and bruises all over.
“Any scars on my body are from this,” Hammond said as he lifted his shirt to show all of his healed injuries.
“Thomas should be dead,” Vogel said, incredulous.
“It’s definitely a miracle,” Hammond’s father agrees.
The weeks of recovery were painful but successful, and it wasn’t long until Hammond was itching to climb again.
“I was all for him getting back into climbing. He knew his limitations and he knew what he needed to do to get back into shape. He is a very strong-willed individual,” his dad said.
Now, more than a year later, Hammond is fully healed and is the president of the MTSU Rock Climbing Club. He and a teammate competed in this year’s USA Climbing’s Collegiate Nationals rock climbing tournament on April 28.
“The accident changed my life,” Hammond said. “It made me want to do something with my life.”
Hammond returned to MTSU in the fall semester of 2016 and took up a second major. He is now a double major in photography and marketing.
“I’m thinking about getting a waterfall tattoo on my left side,” Hammond said, smiling.
The incident, though traumatic, is something Hammond can easily talk about. It was the scariest moment of his young life but has helped shape him into who he is today.
Carley Olejniczak is a junior in journalism at Middle Tennessee State University. Follow her on Twitter at @cm_olejniczak.
Studio M, a project of the College of Media and Entertainment at MTSU, allows student journalists to be published statewide and nationwide. It’s made possible through grants and donations from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, The Tennessean and BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee.