Inhale through the nose for a count of four…
Exhale through the mouth in four…
I check my steps…
Inhale: one, two, three, four …
Exhale: one, two, three, four.
The rhythm, air in, air out, steps, inhaling.
The rhythm of the music throbbing in my headphones as I ran through the woods had always been one of my favourite pastimes.
I could run with Betsy, my Border Collie, for many kilometres, enjoying the spectacle of the dawn sunlight filtering through the trees, and looking around me in that incredible forest. It was all I needed to top up my energy and start my day well.
Working in the police force of the little town where I was born was the perfect job for me. Living in my village was really lucky and I was well aware of it. When I was younger, staying in a small town in the middle of nowhere had always been a reason to argue with my parents – always the same friends, the same girls, the same parties. If you did something wrong, everyone would know about it within a matter of hours.
I grew up and served first in the army and then in SWISSINT, the Swiss Special Peace Force, which took me far from home to countries at war like Bosnia Herzegovina and regions like Kashmir between India and Pakistan. This was a world far removed from my tiny perfect village and it terrified me. In fact, I had been very, very sad most of the time.
The memories of human cruelty would be forever etched in my mind, even though I hoped the most disturbing of them would fade over time.
Back home, I was extremely satisfied with my life, as I could fully enjoy all the good times. Going running with my dog was one of them.
Betsy was my first dog and I got to know her when I joined SWISSINT. She had been trained to sniff out bombs, find various types of drugs and hidden money. It was all as a consequence of the increase in terrorism in Europe. Thus, she had become a part of my life in recent years. When I finished working with the peace corps, Betsy was already close to retirement age for a dog and I asked my superior officer to let her stay with me. Once back home in our little town in Switzerland, she only worked if needed.
When we ran together, she did not need a leash, as she was always by my side, keeping pace with me. What an extraordinary dog! Her attention and body had been so honed over the years by training and work that she was fitter than me.
Even though I knew those woods like the back of my hand, I always kept an eye out for her. I paid careful attention to our route to avoid taking the wrong path, particularly at that time of the year when everything was hidden under fallen leaves. It was really very easy to get lost there.
We were nearly halfway through our usual route, at the foot of the steepest hill. It was the section where I had to be particularly careful because the tops of the trees were so entangled, sunlight barely penetrated. The dim light meant the ground was damp and the leaves slippery.
I remembered at the end of that stretch we would get to a flat part, which we had to take advantage of to slow down and catch our breath, seeing that the hill still rose many metres with a path to its right. That would have been our last great exertion before a well-deserved rest, as my instructor at the academy used to say.
The Rhine River, which surrounded our town, snaked its way three metres below us to the right. That section of the river was quite turbulent, ready to plunge over the waterfall, considered to be the largest in Europe. The appeal of this waterfall in Neuhausen am Rheinfall lay not so much in its height, but the fact that it was one hundred and fifty metres wide. In fact, I was starting to hear the roar of the water, it was beginning to drown out the sound of my music.
I was so lost in thought that I hadn’t noticed Betsy had disappeared. Turning around, I saw her a few metres behind me. Her ears were pricked and she was staring fixedly at a place high up the hill. She must have stopped rather abruptly. This was her unmistakable sign of concentration. I already knew it was not a squirrel or some other forest inhabitant, as she had been trained not to disturb them or, better still, never to be distracted by them.
While going back to her, I asked,
“Hey, girl, what's up?”
When I reached her, I took advantage of the break to tie my shoelaces, but realised her attention was still riveted to the same spot on the hill.
She's behaving strangely. She had lowered herself to the ground and, looking ready to spring into action, let out a little yelp that was more like a growl. She was looking at me as if waiting for my signal.
As I did not know what she had seen, I moved close to her and whispered:
“What’s going on? Have you seen something?” I asked her in a playful voice, stroking her between the ears while I scoured the area.
When I used that tone of voice, she quickly understood it was time for action. I had her attention and she was ready to play any game I suggested.
Only, this time, she stayed on full alert, looking intently in the same direction. She was waiting for my orders, just like in the army.
Now she had my full attention. Crouching next to her, I took off my headphones and was readying myself to go up and check the area when I heard angry voices in the distance. I decided to stay put for our own safety. Luckily, the bushes were tall enough to hide us.
There were at least two male voices, but I could not understand what they were saying. If I was not mistaken, their accent was Eastern European.
Now that I had heard their voices, I was able to pinpoint them higher up, right next to the flat stretch. One of them was dragging something out of what looked like a small cave, with the same ferocity as if he was handling an animal, while the other held what I thought was a weapon. They looked furious and shouted so loud I could hear them, despite the noise of the waterfall.
While I was wondering what to do, Betsy stared at me, waiting for my command. I started to pull my phone out of its armband case to call for reinforcements, because nothing good could ever come from those two.
The piercing scream of a woman drowned out the male voices. A girl was thrashing about and pleading with them to let her live. I could hear the desperation in her voice while she was begging them to let her go.
By the time the man holding the girl had managed to get her to stand up, I already had the phone out and was getting my bearings, and thus, provide my exact location, as the situation called for reinforcements. A colleague of mine, Adam, was my usual running partner, but, unfortunately, not that day.
I had unlocked the main screen of the phone when the sound of a brutal slap interrupted me. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the girl’s head jerk to the side so sharply it looked as though her neck had been broken. One man was shaking her viciously while the other merely laughed. Her screams made my blood run cold.
Instinct took over in an instant. I got up and moved to behind a tree, where I shouted as loudly as possible,
“Stop where you are. Police! Let the hostage go and keep your hands where I can see them!” This is the best approach before the monster kills her. Indeed, this is the only approach that could be done in my desperate situation.
They did not hesitate. The one holding the gun turned towards where he thought the voice had come from and fired. I had already moved and was hiding behind another tree, all the while cursing myself for not having brought my pistol.
I heard them shouting at each other. “Ie të shkojë! Iënë atë!”
I know that language… what are they saying? Something like go and do something...
What really caught my attention was the man who was holding the girl. I realised just how close they were to the edge of the hill, and feared exactly what he wasted no time in doing. Indeed, he did not think twice about carrying out his deed. In the blink of an eye, he shoved the girl, who was still trapped in his arms at that stage, towards the escarpment and fled, along with the other man.
It was like a slow-motion film. I saw her hair fluttering in the wind, her arms stretched forward in a desperate and useless attempt to grab hold off something, while her profile disappeared into the ravine. My heart stopped and a shiver ran down my spine. It was precisely beneath her where the river reached its maximum force before plunging over the waterfall. Her screams accompanied the fall before fading away into the sound of the water.
The coward had left me with no choice. My quick whistle called Betsy to me and I rushed towards the place where the girl had disappeared from my sight, trying to calculate the height of that stretch of the ravine. I only hoped my false warning had frightened them enough to not come back.
I ran swiftly between the trees, ducking and searching for a point from where it was possible to descend to the escarpment. I had to find somewhere quickly where it would be possible to grab on, without risking my neck or falling into the water. Thereafter, my hope was she had stopped on the river bank. I did not want to contemplate what would have happened if she had fallen into the water with that strong current. Betsy descended with me, her gaze darting between me and the escarpment. God help her, please.
After running desperately down the slope, I saw the girl lying in a heap at the edge of the water. She was lying on one side, like a rag doll. Her hair and part of her face were immersed in the water, while the rest of her body lay on the rocks and low bushes growing at the start of the steep part of the hill. It could have been said she was lucky, considering a few metres farther on, there was a wall of sharp rocks that had been built specifically to contain the fury of the water.
Looking up to make sure nobody was waiting for me at the top, I carefully kept moving closer, bearing in mind the height from which she had fallen. Roughly six metres. I noticed some broken trees some way up the slope, which had probably broken the fall. I really hope I’m right.
Unfortunately, I could not go any farther forward and closer to the bank to grab her, as it would have been too risky for me. I’m in an area that’s too exposed and with no protection, but I can’t leave her there and go for reinforcements. If she’s still alive, she’ll most certainly drown.
I knew I had to turn her over very carefully and start the procedures planned in the event of serious accidents. If, by chance, she had a broken neck or spinal cord, my actions could prevent paralysis, or even save her life.
Each second was potentially critical, and thus, I absolutely had to decide. The most important thing was to get her face out of the water. Luckily, her nose was not in the water, but there was the risk she had inhaled some. Her feet were the part of her body closest to me.
I squatted down, looking for a stable position among all those stones, and grabbed her ankles while trying to stay as hidden as possible in the lee of the hill.
I started dragging her slowly towards me.
I prayed to myself to not injure her further.
While I was dragging her towards me, I felt a stab of pain in my chest each time a stone bashed her face or head.
Her hair was loose and it looked ghostly at the mercy of the current, where it had mixed with the blood of her injuries from the fall.
Now it was simply down to luck – mine, not to be discovered and hers, not to have permanent damage or even avoid death.
While I was desperately pulling her, I tried to get an idea of her condition. Her legs looked uninjured to me, but her arm was swollen. It looked like there was a bone poking through the skin near her elbow. Compound fracture. The wrist was bent unnaturally, so that her fingers touched her forearm. It surely had to be another fracture. The fall had been terrible. Why doesn’t she react? Please don’t be dead.
When she was close enough, I leaned over and grabbed her by the hips, as she could not be dragged like that anymore.
I was completely shaken and could feel the sweat running down my face and back, and my heart was pounding in my ears. Brutal seconds.
“Fucking hell!” I muttered angrily.
I was so caught up in the situation that I had started murmuring, expecting her to at least hear me. “Please, tell me that you’re alive. I’m here to help you. Give me a sign that you’re listening. Please!”
While I was talking to her, I took her wrist and checked for a pulse. My hand was trembling, so I had to take a deep breath to calm down. I could not add my stress to this situation, which was already critical. There had been tense situations in the army, but we were either in pairs or a group, so it was really hard for me to be there alone in that moment.
Please, don’t give up on me. Her body showed no signs of life for what seemed to be the longest moment of my life. I again ran my fingers along her wrist, searching for a pulse. I knew exactly where to check for a pulse, but did not want to have to admit defeat. “Give me some sign of life. Please!”
I suddenly felt her pulse and it seemed like a miracle. It was weak and irregular, but it was there. Yes! Good girl. Stay with me.
I breathed a sigh of relief and, using what I had learned from my years at the academy, moved nearer, trying to slide an arm close to her neck, locking the palm of my hand on her chin and gently placing my fingers on her cheek.
“I’m here with you now. Don’t worry. Everything will be fine.” I kept my voice gentle and used the phrases we had learned to comfort and reassure victims while they were waiting for first aid. Talking to these people in stressful situations always helped, and I was discovering, in this case, it also helped me. My voice seemed far away, as if it belonged to someone else, and it helped me to calm my breathing.
Betsy had joined me and was sitting on some leaves, watching me and the woman, waiting for my command. She had already perceived the gravity of the situation, and I was certain she understood the anguish in my voice.
I put my other hand behind her neck to protect it, and using the elbow that was resting on her chest as a lever, began to slowly turn her towards me.
It was my hope that she did not regain consciousness at that particular moment. It did not look like she had any other external fractures, but she needed urgent medical assistance. Her pulse was unstable and she was unconscious. Critical condition.
Looking at her face for the first time, I saw she was very young, must have been about twenty years old. I was certain I had never seen her before. The whole right side of her face had been scratched and was beginning to swell. Her clothes had been ripped, and I could see the wounds that covered her body, but what worried me more was the fact she did not respond to any stimulation.
Resting her gently on my leg, I pulled my phone out of the pocket of my shorts, where I had hurriedly stuffed it earlier, and used the torch to check her pupils, one of them did not react to the light. Concussion.
I took off my t-shirt and ripped it up to make a bandage for the fracture. I must carry her to the car park where I left my bike. We can wait for the emergency services there.
Her lips had turned purple, and I had nothing with me to keep her warm. I phoned my colleague while keeping her resting on my leg. I would have trusted him with my life.
He answered on the third ring, his voice was still sleepy.
“Shit, Thom boy, I already said no, today is…”. I interrupted him before he could continue swearing.
“Adam, listen. Now!” My voice sounded so desperate, it surprised me, too.
“A girl’s been thrown off a cliff near the path Betsy and I were running on, at the last bend just before the waterfall. We’re here at the start of the southern path. Remember where we leave the bicycles in the castle area? Not the tourists’ car park – the other one.”
“Okay.” I heard him breathe in sharply. “I’m coming. Do you need an ambulance?”
“No. The road that goes to the car park where I left the bike isn’t suitable for heavy vehicles. The ambulance would get stuck in the mud.”
“Do you want me to come and help you carry her?”
“No. Wait for me where we leave the bikes. We could get lost. Come on, Adam, please hurry... because her condition’s serious! Thanks.”
My throat tightened with that statement. I don’t want this girl to die in my arms.
“I’m on my way,” he replied, and ended the call.
I started preparing myself to carry her in my arms, trying not to make any sudden movements. The first thing to do was to find my footing, as the area was very muddy and full of rocks and stones. Next, I had to pick her up safely while still on my knees, then stand up slowly, trying to keep my balance. I absolutely can’t fall over.
Betsy was already at my side as I carried the girl with one arm under her knees and the other around her back.
I counted to three before moving. This’ll be the most difficult part. My feet sank into the mud, the lack of flat, stable ground made matters much more complicated. How am I going to climb up the sides of the ravine with her in my arms?
Thank God, she’s light… it’s probably adrenaline running, or rather racing, through my body.
I did not want to ponder on what had happened to her before – her clothing seemed to have been ripped during the fall. I hope she hasn’t been raped. Damn bastards!
She’s got a pulse, even if it’s weak. I knew I had to encourage myself and this would have to do for the time being. It would be another story later. If she remembered what she had been through, if she was ever able to do so…emotional wounds never heal as quickly as physical ones. I’ve been a first-hand witness for years.
I walked with the girl in my arms, keeping as close as possible to the riverbank, even though the ground was unstable. The ravine and bushes would keep us hidden.
Along the way, I remembered if I walked about half a kilometre in the same direction, there was a spot where the escarpment was not nearly so steep, and thus, the climb would be easier. Let’s hope we get some heavenly help.
I was really exhausted but made one last push to reach the car park, where I saw Adam, who was running towards us. Fortunately, the police force gave us excellent training.
I knew she was in critical condition, but my hopes were dealt a blow when I saw the anguished expression on my colleague and friend’s face.