Location: Greenville, South Carolina
Date: May 19, 1991
On the hot day of May 19, 1991, in the suburbs of Greenville, South Carolina, a close-knit group of friends from the local high school band gathered at a backyard above-ground pool to try to cool off. 18-year-old Scott Burdette and his 16-year-old girlfriend, Kelly Hart, who had been going together for almost a year, were there, fooling around in the 4 1/2-foot-deep water, watching some of the boys jump off a bench that had been placed on the deck beside the pool. "Some of the guys were having a contest," Kelly said, "doing cannonballs into the pool, and making up other kinds of dives. We were on the side, watching them goofball. Then Scott went up to do a dive."
Scott had planned to do a belly flop, but realizing that hitting the water this way could be painful, he changed his mind in midair and tried to bring his hands around in front of him to do a cannonball. Instead, he entered the pool head first, striking the bottom and causing a sudden trauma to his spine. Instantly paralyzed, he was unable to move anything below his neck. His motionless body floated to the surface, but at first nobody realized that anything was seriously the matter.
"I didn't think anything was wrong because he's always joking around," Kelly said, so nobody thought he was hurt." Scott's body sank to the bottom again, and when he resurfaced he started choking and calling for help. "I went over there and grabbed him by the waist," Kelly said. "He said that his neck was hurt. And then he said, 'Kelly, I can't move.' I was scared. Real scared."
Kelly called for Scott's sister, Krista, who was also in the pool. "I went over to where Kelly was holding him," Krista said, "and I put my hands on his back and said, 'Scott, are you really hurt?' because he plays around so much. And he said, 'Yeah, man, I'm really hurt--hurt serious.' "
Somebody yelled that they should get Scott out of the pool, but Kelly remembered what two EMS workers who had given a talk at their school had said. "They told us, 'Do not move the victim in case of head and spinal cord injuries. It could cause paralysis.'" Ignoring the urging of others to get Scott out of the water, she stabilized his head and emphatically told them not to touch him.
Someone inside the house called 911. Dispatcher Carolyn Northway took the call. "Right away, the caller told me to believe there was the possibility of paralysis," Northway said. "Uppermost in my mind was not to get him out of the pool until our trained personnel arrived to secure his neck and get him out without further damaging him." Rescue workers from the Berea Fire Department and the Greenville County EMS were dispatched to the scene.
"I started realized that he was really hurt," Krista said, "and I kept shaking. We were trying to hold him really still, but I kept shaking." "I was crying; I was shaking," said Kelly. "I was feeling that I was going to move him, and I knew that I had to keep calm, because if I moved, I could have hurt him badly."
One of Scott's friends called his mother, Earlette Burdette. "I'm a nurse, and I know the things that happen when kids jump into a pool, so the first thing I did was say a prayer," she said. "Then I got in the car and went over there."
Off-duty paramedic Tom Kickler heard the report of the accident on the scanner and rushed over to see if he could help. "I took my shoes and socks off and eased myself into the water to try to reduce any effect of ripples because any movement might aggravate his injury. I asked him how he was doing. He was conscious and he said he wasn't having any trouble breathing, but he wasn't able to move any of his extremities, and at that point he had some numbness in his arms and legs."
When the medic unit arrived, EMS supervisor Bill Marcley took charge. Tom took over the task of immobilizing Scott's head, putting a cervical collar around his neck to keep him from moving it. "Once we had everybody assembled and had sufficient personnel in the pool to handle the situation," Marcley said, "we rotated Scott onto his back, being very careful to keep his head in line with his body. We put a backboard under him and secured him to it in such a way as to completely immobilize the body, from head to toe."
Scott's mother arrived just as the paramedics were ready to remove him from the pool. "I just went over to him and told him that I was there," she said. "I couldn't see fear in his eyes, but he was very quiet. He didn't try to speak or anything." "It was hurting to see my brother being taken away," said Krista. "I kept trying not to cry before, but then when we got on the deck, it just all started coming out." "We had a friend whose brother-in-law had had a motor bike accident that paralyzed him," Scott's mother said. "Several months ago, Scott and I were talking and he said to me, 'Mom, if anything like that ever happens to me, I want you to pull the plug.' And that kind of means 'I don't want to live that way.' " "I was thinking that he wasn't going to get to do the stuff he wanted to do--go to college, get to do what he planned on doing," Kelly said. "And I wasn't sure what was going to happen between us."
Scott was transported to Greenville Memorial Hospital, where he was examined by neurosurgeon O. M. Ballenger. "The x-rays showed that he had a broken neck," Dr. Ballenger said. "If he was allowed to bend his neck forward another quarter of an inch at the scene of the accident, he probably would have been permanently paralyzed."
"Kelly deserves a lot of credit," said Bill Marcley. "She resisted the attempts and the pleas of other teenagers to remove Scott from the pool. If Kelly had done so, the outcome would have been tragically different, I'm certain."
Six months after Dr. Ballenger's operation, in which he successfully fused Scott's fractured vertebrae, Scott had made an amazing recovery. "I really love Kelly a lot, and I really do appreciate her saving my life," Scott said. "There's not really words that you can say for stuff like that." "He's always treated me nice," Kelly said, "but I think he does seem sweeter now, at least to me. I was going to stay with him even if he was paralyzed. And I think that was what was going through his mind, too--that he was scared that he was going to lose me also. But I was going to stick with him, no matter what happened."
"I feel closer to Kelly than anyone he's ever dated, just because I know that she cares about him, and I trust her more than I do anybody else," Krista said. Kelly is grateful that she had the chance to learn first aid techniques in school. "I think the lesson is pay attention to what you hear, because I had no idea as I was sitting there, listening to those EMS workers, that I was going to be using the procedures that I had learned," she said.
"I think that some teenagers at some time of another do learn the lesson of their own mortality," said Scott's mother. "It made me realize that life can be taken away from you in a snap," Scott said. "I think it's made me grow up a little bit more. I think it's made the whole group grow up a little bit more."