Children’s book author rescues woman who falls down 50-foot cliff into ocean in Hawaiʻi
In the darkness of a rainy night, childrenʻs book author Spencer Watts was getting ready to head home to Pāhoa from his favorite camping spot along the rugged Puna coast when he realized his new friend had not returned to her tent.
When Watts couldn’t immediately find her around the campsite, he said he felt “dread in my stomach.”
Using his flashlight, he looked over the edge of the cliff and saw what he feared. About 50 feet below, on the jagged rocks, was his new friend Dawn Pritchett, a tourist from Colorado. Waves were washing over her body.
Despite the sound of rain and crashing waves, he heard her faint cry: “Help me!”
On Tuesday, the pair met for the first time since that harrowing night six days ago. It was a chance for 36-year-old Pritchett to thank 31-year-old Watts in person for saving her life.
Watts had scrambled down the slippery rocks barefoot — and carried her back up the cliff while she was in severe pain from injuries to her foot, lungs, ribs and tricep.
“If he hadn’t spider-manned me up the cliff, there’s no telling what would’ve happened,” Pritchett said Monday, after spending five days at Hilo Medical Center for her multiple injuries.
Earlier on that day, June 14, Watts met Pritchett and Pritchett’s friend, a Big Island resident, at Kahena Black Sand Beach. The three became fast friends. Watts — whose childrenʻs books include “The Turtle in the Glass Shell,” “The Beautiful Bird,” “The Boy on the Moon” and “In Other Worlds” — and Pritchett, who works at a family-owned liquor store, learned they had something in common. They both are streamers on Twitch, a social media live streaming platform.
When Pritchett and her Big Island friend told Watts they planned to camp out for the night, he told them about his favorite spot about a mile away called Red Road. It is near a rocky cliff with the best sunrise views around Kalapana-Kapoho Beach in East Hawai’i.
Watts wasn’t planning on staying overnight but said he stuck around because he was really enjoying the company.
That night at Red Road, there was a new moon and a high tide. Watts said: “We could feel the boom of the waves as they crashed against the cliffs.”
All was good until Pritchett needed to go the bathroom. Her mistake? She didn’t bring a flashlight and made a wrong turn, stepping right over the edge of the cliff.
“When I was going down, I remember putting my hands behind my head like I was on a waterslide to protect my head,” Pritchett said. “That was the only thing I could think to do.”
That action likely saved her from a head injury.
Pritchett doesn’t remember feeling fear as she fell the equivalent of about four stories while wearing only shorts and a tank top. The high tide likely cushioned her fall and prevented an even harder landing against rocks.
When her body stopped falling, she went into shock and survival mode. With a shattered foot, collapsed lung and gash to her tricep, along with four broken ribs she would later learn about in the hospital, she said she climbed 5 to 10 feet. Next, she screamed for help with that collapsed lung.
Watts, who was wearing only pants, scaled down the jagged cliff. When he got to Pritchett, she was on her back and in excruciating pain.
Pritchett’s friend remained at the top of the cliff, shining the flashlight on Pritchett so Watts could find her.
“It’s probably the only reason I could see her,” he said.
And while he knew it could be dangerous to move her, he was more concerned about the waves sweeping them both out to sea. Watts told Pritchett to put her arms around his neck and “hold on with everything she had.”
The sets calmed long enough for Watts to carry her up the cliff. Before he started, he took a deep breath. Pritchett’s forearm was pressed so tight against his Adam’s apple, it was restricting his breathing.
At the midway point of the climb, Pritchett’s pain was so intense she didn’t think she could go on.
“He didn’t let me give up,” Pritchett said. “He kept saying: ‘you got this.'”
Once they made it back to the top, he called 911. Watts said it didn’t take long for the ambulance to arrive.
Eric Moller with Hawai‘i Fire Department confirmed an ambulance was dispatched to Kalapana-Kapoho Beach area at 11:38 p.m. on a report of a woman in her 30s who fell and suffered a laceration. The woman was transported to Hilo Medical Center.
Pritchett said on her ride to the hospital she was delirious with pain. She remembers paramedics asking her what her pain level was and screaming a 10. They gave her medical fentanyl.
After the ambulance left, Watts found himself alone: “I was standing in the dark, in the rain, covered in her blood.”
Watts, who writes children’s books, said he keeps replaying that night over in his head. Knowing that things could’ve gone very differently. He keeps thanking the island and the ocean for helping him get Pritchett back up the cliffside.
Watts called the hospital Sunday asking staff about Pritchett’s condition and if they could put them in contact. Five minutes later, he got a call. She wanted to thank him.
Watts said he told Pritchett how sorry he was for taking her to his favorite camping spot. While they were camped far from the edge, he now plans to take any newcomers out to the site during the day to get their bearings.
Pritchett’s mom flew to the Big Island to help her get home. She originally was scheduled to return home a couple days ago, but because of her collapsed lung she won’t be safe to fly for another two weeks.
“I’m still kind of in disbelief,” Pritchett said. “I’ve dreams of falling the first few nights after the accident. Every time I hit the water, my body would jerk in pain. It almost doesn’t seem real.”