By Keysha Drexel
As he stood at the bottom of a 40-foot ravine off Montgomery Highway and looked up at the gray November sky peeking through the forest canopy, Kelly Garner wondered aloud how he survived an ordeal in January that broke his back and left him with a serious head injury.
Garner answered his own question almost as soon as he asked it.
“Looking at it from down here, I wonder, how in the world did I survive,” he said. “It was a miracle.”
Garner, 49, of Vestavia Hills, is now known by most people as the Good Samaritan who went missing while helping stranded motorists near the Vestavia Hills Library in the Forest during the “snowpocalypse” of Jan. 28.
Garner, who has had type 1 diabetes since he was a child, spent 12 hours down in the ravine by the library in the snow. The fall broke his back and his ribs, injured his shoulder and resulted in a head injury that still affects his memory.
“When I got up that morning, on Jan. 28, I would have never have guessed it would turn out the way it did,” Garner said.
Garner was scheduled to have carpal tunnel surgery on the morning of Jan. 28, so he didn’t eat breakfast.
“My blood sugar was already not in a good place, and then as we’re driving to the surgery center, we got caught in the snowstorm along with everyone else,” he said.
Garner and his wife, Melissa, were stranded with other motorists on U.S. 31 in Vestavia Hills near the Walmart Neighborhood Market.
The couple abandoned their car and made their way home, where Garner put on another layer of warm clothing and headed back out to see if he could get the car.
“On the way back to the car, I saw several people who needed help, so I stopped and helped push cars out the roadway and went and got supplies from the Walmart for people who were stranded,” he said. “I remember thinking how lucky I was that it was close enough for me to walk back to my house, and I remember feeling bad for the moms and dads and grandparents who were just trying to get home to their families.”
Garner said he remembers that he started to feel really tired and light-headed after hours helping stranded motorists.
“The last clear memory I have is sitting down on a truck to try and catch my breath,” he said.
He speculates that because his insulin pump was running low, he became disoriented and slipped on the icy sidewalk in front of the library.
Garner was last seen around 7 p.m. that Tuesday and wasn’t discovered in the ravine until around 8:30 a.m. the following day by a neighbor, Mike Shofner, during a search organized by volunteers.
“I can’t imagine how horrible it was for my family during those hours when I was missing,” he said.
Garner said his mother, who lives in Florence, later told him that she found comfort during those long hours by reading Psalm 40:1-3.
“Those verses say, ‘I waited patiently for the Lord; he turned to me and heard my cry. He lifted me out of the slimy pit; out of the mud and mire; he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand. He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God,'” Garner said. “And those words mean so much to me now. They pretty much sum up my experience.”
Garner said he doesn’t remember anything at all about the fall into the ravine, the night he spent in the bitter cold or even his rescue by the Vestavia Hills Fire Department.
“My next really clear memory is being in the hospital about three days after I was admitted,” he said. “The doctors say it’s probably a blessing that I don’t remember such a traumatic event.”
Garner said he also feels lucky that his company-paid health insurance remained intact and helped pay some of the almost $100,000 in hospital bills.
“And I also got a replacement for my favorite jacket. I was wearing my Eddie Bauer jacket when the accident happened, and it ended up in tatters after the accident. The folks at Eddie Bauer heard about it and sent me a replacement jacket.”
Garner said those aren’t the only blessings to come out of the events of Jan. 28.
“I was lucky in so many ways. My vertebrae were shattered, and I was just inches away from being paralyzed for the rest of my life. I did not get frostbite or have any lasting problems from being out in the frigid temperatures so long. It’s all just incredible,” he said. “But probably the biggest blessing to come out of all this is that it has given me a platform to help inspire others who are dealing with setbacks.”
Garner said he admits his attitude today is much different than how he felt at the beginning of the year.
“I had just been laid off after 13 years at the same company as a pharmaceutical sales representative, and so I was pretty down in the dumps and trying to figure out what I was going to do next and how I was going to support my family,” he said. “And more than that, I think I was looking for something spiritually, too.”
Garner said he feels like the accident was a wakeup call for him to take advantage of all the opportunities he has been given in life.
“I’ve heard from so many people since that accident that God saved me for a purpose and that He has a bigger plan for me,” Garner said. “And I think part of that plan is telling my story to people and letting them know that they can also overcome any obstacles they encounter.”
The injuries Garner sustained in the fall into the ravine meant he had to spend two weeks at the University of Alabama Hospital, where he had back surgery to insert rods and screws to fuse his spine back together. He spent about nine days at Spain Rehabilitation Center at UAB.
“I had to learn to walk again, to tie my shoes again,” he said. “It was a very humbling experience. I just tried to focus on the positive – the fact that I was able to walk, that I was still here to see my sons – and I didn’t let any negative thoughts distract me.”
Garner’s story gained worldwide attention, and he said he remembers an endless stream of visitors at the hospital and later, when he went home.
“The outpouring from everyone was just amazing, just wonderful,” he said. “I’ve heard from people who had stopped going to church but then heard my story and got back in church. Those kinds of stories mean the world to me.”
And now Garner is hoping his story can reach an even larger audience and inspire even more people.
“I’m working on a book and also using running as a forum to connect with people and help motivate them to face any obstacles they encounter head-on,” he said.
Garner was training to run in the Mercedes Marathon about 10 years ago when he was in a serious car accident that sidelined his running goals.
“It’s something I wanted to do and then just gave up on, and now I’ve decided that I really have to cross that finish line in the half marathon in February,” he said.
Garner is being coached by Danny Harrelson and on Nov. 8, he completed the Vulcan 10K Run.
“I want my kids to see that their dad is not down and out, sitting on the couch eating Twinkies,” he said. “I want to show my sons – and everyone – that no matter what happens, you pick yourself up and you keep going. You don’t let obstacles, no matter how big or impossible they seem, get in your way. You go around them or fight your way through them.”