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Cloverdale mother recovering after terrifying fall on broken zip line in Mexico

Heather Gladden expected the zip-line ride across a gorge in Mexico to scare her, but not to leave her badly hurt after she plummeted hundreds of feet into the jungle.

As she fell, she was convinced she’d never again see her children.

“I free-fell for, I don’t know, 10, 20 seconds,” Gladden, 36, and a mother of four said at her home near Cloverdale, where she’s laid up with apparent cable cuts and other injuries to the bottom half of her body.

As she dropped last Thursday toward trees in the Nogalito Eco Park near Puerto Vallarta, Gladden said she seemed to accept that she was going to die. “It was the most peaceful I’ve ever been in my life,” she recalled.

Then she crashed into the canopy of a tree about 500 feet below where she’d been when, moments before, something went terribly wrong with one the highest and longest zip-line rides at the tourist park.

Moments before, Gladden’s husband, Ryan, had completed the same ride on a cable 2,100 feet across the canyon. On a zip line, a rider is placed in a sturdy harness that is firmly clipped to a wheeled pulley that carries the person along a strung cable.

When Ryan Gladden reached the far side of the canyon a short distance south and inland from Puerta Vallarta, a Nogalito Eco Park employee detached him from the cable. Just then, he said, that end of the cable evidently broke or came free from whatever hardware had anchored it.

He said the line disappeared into the heavily wooded chasm like a snake into a hole.

Ryan Gladden realized his wife had been suspended on that cable. He feared she was dead, then he heard her.

“She was screaming like I’d never heard her scream before,” he said.

Stunned, Heather Gladden looked about and saw that she had landed in a tree. “I knew I had to scream because I was in the middle of the jungle,” she said Tuesday.

Her husband hurried down the canyon wall and followed his wife’s voice to the tree. He said her safety harness was still attached to a pulley that was still clasped onto the cable, now anchored to just one end.

Ryan Gladden and employees of the Nogalito hiking, zip-ride and restaurant attraction lowered her about 40 feet to the ground, then moved her into an ambulance and on to a hospital.

Heathen Gladden said the staff examined the open wounds that were inflicted on her legs and buttocks by the cable and by the tree that she credits with cushioning her fall and saving her life. She said the hospital crew wanted her to stay overnight but she resisted, for several reasons.

“I wanted to be home,” she said.

She added that she and her husband had arrived in Puerto Vallarta on a cruise ship and had her stay in the hospital been prolonged it would have left without them. Beyond that, she said, she speaks no Spanish so she couldn’t communicate with the doctors and nurses, and she wanted to get back to Sonoma County and be treated there.

The Gladdens said they left the hospital and returned to the Norwegian Cruise Line ship, which was not affiliated with the zip line excursion, one the Gladdens arranged on their own. Having stopped previously at Cabo San Lucas and Mazatlan, the ship headed for where the seven-day cruise began, San Pedro.

The Gladdens had left their car there. They departed from Southern California early Sunday morning and arrived that afternoon at the Sutter Santa Rosa Regional Hospital.

Heather Gladden said tests showed that in addition to the flesh wounds there is damage to her the anterior cruciate ligament in her right knee that may require surgery. She’s aware she’s fortunate to be alive.

“I’m not a churchgoer, but somebody was looking over me that day,” she said

Nogalito manager Nuria Flores González said by phone from Puerto Vallarta Tuesday that the cable on the Descanso zip line, one of 11 at the park, did not detach or break at one end but only drooped when a cable support mechanism failed.

“It got weak in some way and that’s what made it drop lower than normal,” Flores said. She said she was not at that zip line last Thursday, but it is her understanding that Heather Gladden did not fall freely but descended as the line drooped.

“I believe it was a slow drop,” she said.

The Cloverdale resident and former Geyserville High School student said that is nothing remotely like what happened.

“I’m in the middle of the gorge when all of a sudden I’m free-falling,” she said from her couch. “I thought I came out of my harness.”

She and her husband had already ridden four shorter, lower zip lines at Nogalito when they were clipped onto pulleys on the spectacular Descanso line. The Nogalito website says it is 500 feet high and nearly four-tenths of a mile long.

It’s just since arriving back home and beginning to heal that Heather and Ryan learned one English translation of Descanso.

Break.

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