According to the Charleston resident, that tragic fall also made him aware of his need for God in his life and to share his life-changing experience with the world.
Crittenden, 44, has documented the days leading up to his harrowing fall, the gut-wrenching ground collision and his fulfilling life afterward as a God-fearing quadriplegic in a recently released book, “I Didn’t Have To Stay.”
In his book, Crittenden describes his love for hunting, the methods he used and the excitement he and his two brothers, David and Roger, had for hunting bucks in the local area. In Chapter 4 he recounts that fateful Friday, Nov. 29, 1996, when the desire to hunt just one more buck got the best of him.
Although Crittenden, his wife and brother, David, were cutting, wrapping and labeling the venison from the previous day’s hunt, Crittenden admits, “As we kept working on getting the meat prepared for the freezer, the thoughts of knowing there was a good-sized buck roaming around on the hill was working on my mind.”
He said, “I told David, ‘I’m goin’ back out ... I know we ain’t done no good to speak of in the evenings up there, but I’m goin’.”
David agreed to go with him. Crittenden said he loaded his tree stand in his pickup truck, got his gun and told his wife he would be back. It was around 3:30 p.m. when they started up the hill into the wooded area.
“I hurriedly set up my stand, attached it to the tree and started climbing to the height that would give me a good view of the whole area,” said Crittenden. By six o’clock, however, the brothers were in the the dusk and shadows of the evening night, unable to see much. Crittenden decided to call it quits.
“The first thing I did was unload my gun, then I popped the clip back,” he recalls. “I never climbed up or down a tree with a shell in the chamber of the gun for safety reasons.”
He then put the gun on his back with the sling across his left shoulder so both arms were free. Taking the climber and seat combination loose from the tree, Crittenden unbuckled his safety belt and started to climb down the tree. To this day, the experienced hunter says he has no idea why he decided to use his climber on his descent.
“I would use it to climb the tree but never to climb down,” he said. “But that night I used it.”
While setting the climber, Crittenden admits he “failed to get the chain hooked properly.”
“It felt like it was hooked properly, but I failed to shine my light on it and check it,” he said. “As I pulled down on it, so that I could release the stand and lower it with my feet, the chain on the climber came loose.”
The sudden shift threw him off balance, causing Crittenden to fall backwards out of the stand with no chance of grabbing hold of anything. The gun came loose, hitting the ground first, according to Crittenden, who was now in mid-air, free-falling, plummeting headlong to the ground. The stiff rushing wind as he fell came to an abrupt halt as his left hand smashed to the ground first.
“If felt like my arm shattered,” he said. “The pain was indescribable.” Crittenden said he landed on his head and bounced, adding, “It sounded like a dry twig snappin’ ... it was my neck! Then my body started down, rolling my head back over my shoulders. The only part of my body that I felt land after that was my left knee, and it hit a rock!”
Broken in pieces, Crittenden said he was lying face down and having a hard time breathing.
“With each struggle to breathe I could feel my life rapidly slipping away,” he wrote in his book. “I was dying and I knew it.”
David, who was between 75 and 100 yards away, heard the falling climber smash to the ground, followed by a second fall, and came running. Making a quick neck support so his brother could breathe, David rushed to get help.
In what he describes as the most horrifying moment when he was left alone in the woods, lying shattered and dying, Crittenden admits his greatest failure.
“The one thing that was getting to me was the way I’d turned my back on the Lord many years earlier,” he confessed. “For so many years I lived my life as I wanted to — doing my own thing. There was no time available for the Lord in my life. My eyes were set on the world.”
Crittenden said he could get up early in the morning to be in the woods to hunt or out on the river to go fishing, but found no time to worship God. With his life going out of him, Crittenden said a miracle happened and changed his life.
His faith-strengthening account of survival from lying in the cold woods alone, to life in ICU at Erlanger Medical Center and at Siskin Hospital for Physical Rehabilitation and beyond, became a testament to one man’s will to live and trust in God to renew his spirit and make him whole.
“I call my book ‘I Didn’t Have To Stay’ because when I was at Erlanger I had three opportunities when I could have left — just say, ‘I’ve had enough because I can’t take anymore pain’ — but I turned each opportunity down.”
According to Crittenden, his visiting family made a big difference when he felt he could no longer take the agonizing, relentless pain. Their presence and encouraging words gave him the strength to “hang around a little longer.”
Crittenden said in those “three opportunities,” he could feel his life slipping away and was pretty sure he was going to die each time.
“I was in a lot of pain when those opportunities were offered to me. I was in pain like I’ve never experienced before in my life,” he said. “Seems like I would go into a state where there was no pain. My surroundings were peaceful.
“It’s hard to explain but everything around me was white. I didn’t hear any music or see any bright lights. I was just in a peaceful state of being. As soon as I refused the opportunity I’d be back and so was the pain. It seems like it would even be worse.”
Crittenden said he has feeling in certain parts of his body but does not describe it as a “normal” feeling.
“I can tell if someone is touching my legs, my feet and parts of my back — some places on my side — but I don’t have hardly any feeling at all in my hands.”
Despite the debilitating tragedy, Crittenden is still able to go hunting with family members who serve as caregivers. His latest hunt was Nov. 20.
“I had a ball!,” he said. “Didn’t see no deer but still, it was a great hunt — just for the simple fact that I got to go hunting with Roger, my middle brother. We didn’t get to hunt too much together in the previous season. It depends on the weather due to my ongoing health problems.”
Crittenden said he hopes his journey to redemption after suffering the tragic accident will be encouraging to others who might be taking God for granted.
“It’s my desire that those who read this book will be encouraged and warned, but most of all, be drawn closer to the Lord,” wrote Crittenden in his foreword.
“I hope those who are handicapped or disabled find some inspiration in these pages and realize that they can still participate in life and make a difference. Just because we can’t do the things we once could, that is no sign to give up — because there’s still a lot of living left to do.”
Crittenden added, “I hope no one has to ever face the terrible ordeal, as I did, before they let the Lord into their lives.”
In spite of his physical limitations, Crittenden maintains other doors with limitless possibilities are opening to him.
“I’m enjoying life more than I could ever have dreamed,” he said with a soft smile.
A copy of the paperback and hardback book, “I Didn’t Have To Stay,” can be purchased in Cleveland at The Museum Center at Five Points, White Wing Book Store on Keith Street, Bible Barn Book Store on Weese Road, M&L Produce on 9th Street and The Celebrity California Concept Hair Design on Keith Street.
The book can also be purchased at Ace Hardware and The Preferred Family Pharmacy in Charleston.