By Air Force Staff Sgt. Mike Meares
Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam
Air Force Capt. Matt Adams looked up, encouraging his friend and co-worker, Air Force Capt. John Barbour, as he clung precariously to a waterfall’s cliff, some 25 feet above the rocks and swirling water below.
Suddenly, his friend lost his grip and fell. Adams knew he had to act quickly, or the first day of 2011 could be the last day of his buddy’s life.
Adams, then a civil engineer first lieutenant deployed to Joint Task Force Bravo in Honduras, was with a group of airmen taking a holiday trip to the Central American nation of Costa Rica. Their destination that day was the Nauyaca Waterfalls.
Accessible only by foot or on horseback, the falls are located at the base of a rainforest trail inside a canyon. The green canopy envelops the area, making it an attractive tourist destination. Barbour climbed an area of cliff to the right of the falls. After a short hike to the top, Adams could see Barbour clinging to the rocky wall and not moving.
“John climbed up the side of the waterfall in an area that didn’t look hard to climb, but there were rocks below,” Adams said. “I could tell that he was stuck, and his arms and legs were shaking. He wasn’t going anywhere.”
With Barbour frozen only a couple of feet from the uppermost ledge, Adams climbed the same section to lend a hand and get him to the top, all the while talking to Barbour to encourage him to hold onto the rocks. His plan was to reach the ledge and pull him the rest of the way up.
“I reached just below him and was going to continue on up,” Adams said. “But, as I was just below him, his hands and feet came off the wall at the same time. He kind of just came unglued and fell almost in the worst way you could, I think.”
Barbour’s head slammed into the rock as he landed on his back on a large flat piece of stone. His momentum rolled him into the pool at the base of the waterfall, and the current pushed him to the bottom of its tumultuous 20-foot depths.
“I could see John sinking pretty fast, and he quickly sunk out of view in the murky water,” he said.
Adams made a calculated leap from his position, cleared the rocks and dove into the pool below. He took a big breath and plunged into the depths, fighting the current with every stroke.
“I went straight down from where he sank, trying to reach him with very short visibility,” he said. “I remember clearing my ears several times as I went down, and down, and down.”
Adams said he remembers thinking the current might have pushed Barbour from where he originally entered, and that he could be anywhere. But still holding the same breath underwater, he continued on.
“I finally saw him lying on the bottom with his arms stretched out,” Adams said. “At this point, I was glad I found him.”
Adams wrapped up Barbour and applied pressure to a profusely bleeding wound in the back of his head. Pushing off the bottom, he kicked furiously to get to oxygen, carrying a seemingly lifeless Barbour.
“As soon as we hit the surface, he woke up and started fighting me, struggling, not knowing what was going on,” he said. “That made things a little difficult.”
Other airmen from the civil engineer squadron came to their aid and pulled Barbour to a shallow section of water. While in the shallow waters, they treated what they could see.
“We didn’t know what kind of back injury he might have, so we didn’t want to pull him out of the water completely,” Adams said. “The plan was to have him lay there until we could get some help.”
With a shirt in place to help control the bleeding, Adams and Barbour’s cousin, Brent Sabino, ran up a trail to a nearby house to call an ambulance. With a little difficulty, the bilingual Adams convinced the local residents the injury was serious and required help. They called an ambulance, and one of the residents retrieved an old wooden stretcher from a shed and returned to the falls with the Americans.
Back at the injury site, Barbour was showing potential signs of a traumatic brain injury: he was vomiting and was not completely coherent. But in a situation requiring speedy medical attention, luck was not on their side. Moments later, the property owner showed up at the waterfall to inform the group that the first ambulance broke down, and the second ambulance could not make it down the gravel road.
“It was starting to get dark,” Adams said. “We knew we were running out of time to get him to help.”
The captain led the team in carrying Barbour up the trail on the stretcher to the main road, using strips torn from shirts to secure him for the climb up a trail fraught with steep inclines, slippery surfaces and a series of hairpin turns. Halfway up, the homemade stretcher buckled.
Adams said he was thankful during this section of the ordeal he had some “big guys” with him. At certain sections, Air Force Staff Sgt. Noah Villanueva had half the stretcher to himself on the treacherous path negotiating the switchbacks. At some points, they were crawling in the mud and rocks.
“This was the hardest part of the entire trip,” Adams said. “It was brutal.”
Fighting to keep Barbour awake and alert, the team finally reached the trailhead. After a short drive in a truck to meet the ambulance, paramedics were able to provide medical care in pitch-black darkness on the way to the hospital.
At the hospital, Barbour was treated and had to stay overnight before being cleared to fly back to Honduras for further medical evaluation. Once he was back at Soto Cano Air Base, he was flown to San Antonio Military Medical Center South at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas.
Barbour has recovered from his injuries, works as a civilian civil engineer with the Defense Logistics Agency in Columbus, Ohio, and recently became a new father with the birth of his son. His memory of the immediate time after he fell is sketchy, he said, but he knows the outcome of his ordeal would have been worse without the help of his wingmen.
“If Matt wasn’t climbing that wall underneath me, I am certain that I would have died,” Barbour said. “Even more, I don’t believe that the average person would have been able to swim down that far and fetch me out of the water. If all the [guys] weren’t there to carry me out, it is hard to say what might have happened. I probably would have died, or would have had it much worse off than I had it.”
Adams said without the help of Villanueva, Air Force Tech. Sgt. Dominique Vasquez, Air Force Staff Sgt. Graham Clouden, and Sabino, it would have been impossible to save him.
“We are fortunate that things turned out the way they did though the entire ordeal,” Adams said. “It was instinctual to jump in after him. Our military training helped when it came to getting him up the trail on the stretcher. But, we had to improvise the whole way.”
For his efforts, Adams was awarded the Airman’s Medal, approved by the secretary of the Air Force and awarded to service members who distinguish themselves by heroic actions, usually at the voluntary risk of life, but not involving combat.
During the medal presentation ceremony here March 11, hundreds gathered to see Pacific Air Forces commander Gen. Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle present Adams with the medal.
“Your demonstration of courage, valor, and putting yourself in danger to protect another airman is something that we can all learn from,” Carlisle said. “What we do is family. We’re in this together, and we have each other’s back. … The reason we’re the greatest fighting force — the world’s greatest air force ever seen — is because we have each other’s back.”