Young hiker shares near-death ordeal at Fossil Creek

Fossil Creek is a popular destination for many to cool off, especially when it heats up, but if people run into trouble on the trails or near the water, it could be difficult for first responders to get to them in time.

Every second counted for an 18-year-old girl who nearly died on a trail in June, and her story is a cautionary tale for hikers, as well as a plea to officials to repair the roads for emergency crews.

"Now that I think back and I saw that bright white light when I was seizing, or if I was like dying or if I almost went to heaven, it's weird," said Sarah Craver.

For Craver, the distance between life and death was probably less than a mile.

"Apparently I was stumbling and I just sat down. I was unresponsive, tried to get up again and just fell and was just laying on my back, basically," said Craver.

Sitting in her hospital bed at Maricopa Medical Center, Craver doesn't remember much about June 20. FOX 10 sat down with Craver in early August. She thought the day would be just a fun outing with friends at Fossil Creek. They were hiking the Fossil Springs Trail.

"We get up there, and we're all kind of freaking out a little bit because the park ranger did tell us it's kind of a hard hike," said Craver.

It started out fun. The 18-year-old admits she's not an avid hiker, but they had plenty of water and never thought of the worst-case scenario.

"Of course, going down is the easiest," said Craver. "We got all the way down. Once we hit the water area, we just stopped had some fun, ate some snacks, swam around for a little bit."

However, the eight-mile round trip hike caught up with Craver on the way back, with about a mile left.

"My body just kind of shut down, and I ended up passing out from the heatstroke," said Craver.

Craver's father, Steven, was in Phoenix when he got the call from his daughter's friends that something was wrong.

"Like any parent, you don't think it would happen, but you never know," said Steven, as he held back his tears.

The ordeal that nearly killed Craver still has lasting effects. Near kidney failure led to painful blisters and skin grafts.

"Our response takes about 25 to 30 minutes to get out there. First crews found her unconscious, unresponsive, and convulsing. That's a really bad sign," said Gary Morris, Chief of Pine-Strawberry Fire. Morris helped with the rescue that day, and said Craver's proximity to the beginning of the trail likely saved her life.

"The time involved was about three hours to get her up and out and into a hospital in Phoenix," said Morris. "She had a very high core temperature. Most medical experts would say she's really lucky to be alive."

First responders usually need to get to victims on foot. After administering aid, they used a big wheel to get Craver up the last mile, and onto a helicopter back to Phoenix.

"Most of our rescues occur on the lower part of the four-mile trail. Had she collapsed where most of those hikers find themselves in trouble, it would have been a five to seven-hour rescue, she would not have survived," said Morris.

Morris said it doesn't need to be this way. He's been advocating for the past five years to get the trail and other portions of the roads surrounding it back up to par for emergency responder use, ideally with an ATV-like vehicle.

"There are three roads involved going to three different locations that, in the past, would've been a 90-minute rescue," said Morris. "Now. just about every one of the locations is five to seven hours."

The trail and parts of the road haven't been used by vehicles for years. The work wouldn't be easy, with boulder removal, paving, repairs, and widening needed at various locations.

"We don't disagree that the road could be improved," said Carrie Templin, Public Affairs Officer for Tonto National Forest.

The burden for repairs mostly falls on the U.S. Forest Service and Tonto National Forest. Their engineers estimate it would cost around $6 million to repair all of the roads in need around Fossil Creek.

"That's a very big number for the Tonto National Forest. That's three times our annual road maintenance budget to maintain all 5,000 miles of road on the Tonto National Forest," said Templin.

Meetings between the county, state, and federal officials continue. Almost 500 rescues happened in 2015 and 2016, a number that's been reduced thanks to a permit system and a heightened emphasis on the hike's difficulty. For Craver, a girl close to becoming a fatality statistic, the answer about what to do is clear.

"These changes could drastically increase the number of rescues each year and decrease the number of deaths on hikes like this," said Craver.

Morris said he'll be meeting with the U.S. Forest service again in August with more plans for the roads. As for Craver, she still hopes to attend her freshman year of college at Oregon State University this fall.