survived falling off a bridge
Illustration by Joel Kimmel

Steven Arrasmith’s incredible story

The Snake River separates Oregon and Idaho, and I cross over it all the time on my commute. On this day I was about three-quarters of the way across the icy interstate bridge when I saw a truck blocking the lane ahead. What immediately kicked into my head was that someone was in trouble and I had to help. So I pulled over, put on my flashers, parked about 20 yards behind the truck, and stepped out of my Jeep. Then I heard screeching tires and saw a car sliding out of control toward my vehicle.

As the car crashed into the Jeep, I tried to turn and run away. But it all happened too fast. The Jeep slammed into me, tossing me headfirst over the side of the bridge. At that point I knew I was going into the river.

As I went over, I clawed desperately at the concrete barrier, briefly grabbing hold of it. In that split second, I thought about only one thing: getting home to my 7-month-old son, Asher. Then I lost my grip. Still, that brief grab might have saved my life: It somehow positioned my body so I plummeted feet-first instead of headfirst into the frigid water 50 feet below. As I fell, I kept looking around, hoping to maintain my sense of space and direction.

More than half of people who fall from this height die, research shows. ” At these heights, any surface—water, grass, whatever—acts like concrete on impact,” says Andrew Schmidt, D.O., M.P.H., medical director of Jacksonville Beach Ocean Rescue.

I hit the water and felt a cold jolt of relief: I had made it. I was alive. The worst part was over. I looked around again to spot the closest shore and orient myself. I’m an Army vet and have hunted, fished, camped, and hiked since childhood. Those experiences helped me stay calm and in control, but I also knew what the dangers were. Since it was a cold morning in late November, hypothermia was definitely a threat.

My life was still in danger, so I knew what I had to do: swim to shore. I paddled about 100 yards to the closest land, a tiny island in the river.

“Even 10 minutes into swimming in cold water, a physically fit swimmer can expect severe deterioration in physical ability,” says Dr. Schmidt. It’s worse with clothing weighing you down. No shore nearby? Grab something that floats and stay put.

As I made my way to shallower water, I noticed that the lower half of my left leg was just kind of flopping around. It turns out my femur was broken (and so were a couple of ribs, although I hadn’t noticed those yet). Luckily, I wasn’t bleeding and no bones were sticking out. Using my arms and my good leg, I dragged myself onto the island.

The night before the accident, I had kissed my son before going to my shift at a juvenile correctional facility. I’d promised to see him in the morning—a vow that flashed through my mind as I clung, fell, and then swam.

From the island, I looked up toward the bridge, saw the whirling blaze of police lights, and yelled for help. It took a police officer about 30 minutes to wade through the river to me and wrap me in a wool blanket. My lips and face were blue, but it wasn’t so bad. I’ve been cold and wet before. Then again, I was running on adrenaline.

To preserve body heat, remove any wet clothing and (if possible) put on something dry to block the wind, says Dr. Schmidt.

Five minutes after I crawled ashore, my father, Kasey, arrived on the scene. My dad is a registered nurse and had just finished his hospital shift. About 30 more minutes passed as I talked with the officer and yelled information up to my father. I wanted him to know I was okay but that I probably had a broken leg. I suppose I kept communicating to keep my mind off what was happening. The whole thing seemed surreal. A search-and-rescue team eventually reached the island, strapped me to a board, and hauled me off. I was exhausted but alive.

I was taken to my father’s hospital, but no trauma team was available. An ambulance took me to another hospital where my femur was surgically repaired, a rod placed in the damaged bone. The pain was searing. It felt like every muscle in my leg was tight, wrenched by the trauma.

I credit my father, who raised me on his own since I was 4 years old, for a lot of my recovery. He actually pursued a career in nursing after I was diagnosed with leukemia as a child. And if I ever felt like slacking on my rehab for even a second, my father set me straight with the manner of a drill sergeant. It would have been easy to spend my recovery time on the couch, but my father kept me moving as much as I could. I was pushed to my limits, but it was for the best.

It can take months to fully recover from a broken femur, and it’s a slow, painful progression from crutches to a walker to a cane to eventually walking on your own. But with my father’s help, I took a few unassisted steps less than two weeks after my fall, and I returned to work within two months.

Now I walk without a cane and don’t need much help. I even swim—although it was hard to get into the water the first time after my accident. I still have pain and stiffness in my legs, but things are getting easier.

Steven Arrasmith, 34, lives in Mesa, Idaho.