Spokane high school student pinned by falling tree in North Idaho; prepared classmates carry the day

Nov 4, 2019 | Blog

The boys kicked the dead tree, tempting the 90-foot widow-maker with each stomp, caught in the exuberance of outdoor adventure.

They were deep in the backcountry of Idaho, north of Priest Lake and 3 1/2 miles from the nearest forest service road, a bumpy affair miles from the closest town. They were collecting firewood.

For 10 minutes, they kicked and knocked the dead snag, until Addison Ditto delivered the fateful blow, a “spartan kick” delivered with vim and vigor by the 110-pound junior.

The pine had enough.

It fell. Carried by gravity, its base tumbled away from the boys while the top half broke and fell toward the four teenagers.

They scattered. Most ran to the side of the falling behemoth. But Ditto ran directly away from the tree, which came crashing down in an explosion of rotten, water-logged wood, dirt, moss and branches.

He ran just fast enough and far enough. His left leg was caught.

“He was lying there screaming,” said Jack Overholser, a junior at Innovation High School. “Me and my buddy JT (Wilson) had to lift the tree off his leg while he was screaming. That was probably the most traumatizing part.”

Ditto sat up and saw his “lower calf hanging.”

“This is not good,” he recalled thinking.

The next several hours were a blur, but thanks to quick thinking and good training, Ditto would be back in Spokane safe at Sacred Heart that night.

The 13 boys were on a three-day camping trip as part of Innovation High School’s Evergreen class. Innovation High School is a charter school in Spokane.

Taught by Ole Haakon Reiersoelmoen, the class takes science (physics, chemistry or biology, for instance) and shows its application in the outdoor world. Students go on overnight field trips once a month and have day trips nearly every week. They’ve gone kayaking, estimating how quickly the river is flowing. They’re taking an avalanche training course this winter to learn about the physics and chemistry of snow.

They also study outdoor survival and preparation. All of which left them uniquely prepared to deal quickly and efficiently with the backcountry emergency.

After the tree fell, the rest of the class gathered around, including Reiersoelmoen and the other instructor on the trip.

They splinted Ditto’s leg and built a stretcher from tree branches and a tarp. This was, in fact, something they’d practiced doing just the week before using Ditto as the victim.

“We knew exactly what to do,” Overholser said.

Reiersoelmoen, the instructor, who said he has a “God-given gift” of staying calm during stressful situations, started delegating. Under his direction, students built the stretcher, splinted Ditto’s leg, contacted the school and authorities using their emergency communication device and kept an eye on Ditto, who was in shock.

Once Ditto’s leg was stabilized (using branches and tape) and the stretcher was built, half the group started to carry him the 3 1/2 miles out. The other half stayed behind with the second instructor.

The hike out, while flat, had plenty of obstacles. At one point, while crossing a stream on a narrow bridge, the students carrying the stretcher had to walk off the trail, slopping through the muck.

“It was super hard because we had to keep the stretcher spread out so we wouldn’t crush his leg or anything,” junior Zaine Darrington said.

The hike out was incredibly painful for Ditto.

“During the miles, I was just yelling and screaming,” he said.

Around 7 p.m., they got back to the trailhead. The ambulance wasn’t there, so they loaded Ditto up and started driving. About 10 minutes down the road, they passed the ambulance. From there, Ditto was taken to the Newport hospital, where his parents met him.

The remainder of the class spent the night camping. The following day, they voted to not finish the three-day trip. They were too cold, shocked and tired.

Ditto was taken to Sacred Heart. It turned out he had a compound fracture in his tibia and fibula bones. In other words, he’d broken his shin. He had surgery and is recovering well.

Although the incident was terrifying, Ditto’s mother, Annie Ditto, said she’s grateful to the school and students.

“We are so thankful for good friends and good teachers that were trained and willing,” she said. “We totally get that boys do stupid things like pushing down trees.”

Ditto echoes his mom praising his classmates and their quick thinking.

As for lessons learned? Be prepared and expect the unexpected, Ditto said. His classmates also highlighted the importance of having a first aid kit, hiking with friends and having a way to communicate with the outside world.

And, “Don’t knock down trees,” J.D. Mitchell added.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly named the high school and omitted the last name of Ole Haakon Reiersoelmoen. It has been corrected.