The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

November 8, 2012

Teen wreck victim in good condition

Kim West
kwest@athensnews-courier.com

— Lee Campbell has a simple explanation for how his 19-year-old son, Tyler Campbell, survived nearly three harrowing days trapped in a 30-foot ravine before being discovered Tuesday afternoon.

Tyler Campbell, of Dellrose, Tenn., was reported missing early Sunday morning as hundreds of volunteers and public safety officials scoured the Tennessee counties of Lincoln and Giles and Limestone and Madison counties in Alabama. Shortly before 2:30 p.m. Tuesday, a passing truck driver spotted a conscious Campbell near the guardrails of Interstate 65 and contacted emergency officials. Campbell, who stands more than 6-foot-5 inches tall and weighs about 270 pounds, managed to scale the muddy embankment with a broken shoulder and a broken leg.

“He got up the slope because the Lord brought him up the slope,” said Lee Campbell, who was reached by phone Wednesday morning in his son’s hospital room at Huntsville Hospital. “I’m still getting bits and pieces, but I know he tried and failed (getting up the slope). I know he tried to get up there, laid down a while and rested because he didn’t have anything to eat.

“He is tough, and he is just a very good young man,” said Lee, who knew immediately something was wrong when Tyler didn’t return home by his midnight curfew Saturday night after attending a church event with his family and then leaving separately to visit friends in northern Limestone County. “He’s a good-hearted man, a big, broad-shouldered young man and an all-round good person who is obviously far more loved than I realized.”

The saga began after Campbell, who had just received his brand-new iPhone in the mail two days earlier, left the home of an Elkmont acquaintance around 11:30 p.m. Saturday and fell asleep at mile marker 365 between the Alabama Welcome Center and the Ardmore exit on I-65 northbound. His 1997 white Dodge extended cab truck veered off the roadway for 40 yards into the guardrails, plunged down a 30-foot ravine and nestled sideways between two trees at the bottom.

Campbell, who works for a blasting company in Franklin, Tenn., weathered rain and near-freezing temperatures at night for nearly three days without food, but he appeared in relatively good condition at the scene, according to Sgt. Doug Boeringer, an investigator with the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Department.

“I started thinking the worst and was prepared for this to be more than a found person alive — a body recovery or homicide (is likely after a person has been missing for multiple days),” said Boeringer, who is also Tyler’s neighbor in rural Lincoln County. “I got into the ambulance and went up and said, ‘Tyler, I’m sure glad to see you,’ and he said, ‘Mr. Doug, I’m sure glad to see you.’ I asked him about Saturday night and if he knew where he was, and he did.

“He was bright-eyed and smiling, and glad to be out of there. He had dirt on his shirt, cuts on his hands and arms, and they had him bundled because he was cold and had the heat on him. Appearance-wise, he looked pretty good, even though he had those injuries.”

Boeringer said investigators were able to narrow the primary search to Giles County (Tenn.) and Limestone County after using cellphone towers to pinpoint Tyler’s last known whereabouts. According to Lee Campbell, the initial widespread search had included Lawrence, Wayne, Giles, Lincoln and Moore counties in Tennessee, plus Limestone and Madison counties.

“All this started Sunday morning for myself and the (Lincoln County) sheriff, (Murray Blackwelder), and our first thoughts were that he had possibly driven off the road,” Boeringer said. “There are a lot of hollows and woods where he lives, and it’s a very rural area in western Lincoln County.

“A lot of friends had joined the sheriff’s department and the volunteer fire department (Sunday), and by Monday morning it became a pretty big search with hundreds of people looking for him.

“Once we had enough on the ground for search and rescue, we began treating it as an investigation that included foul play. We found that (Tyler’s phone) had hit the cell towers in Ardmore and Athens, near Highway 64 and I-65 and figured out that was where the phone had powered off or been turned off.

“We talked to a young man in Elkmont who was the last person to see Tyler at 11:30 p.m. If you follow the path from that location (toward Tyler’s home), that was where he was found.”

Lee Campbell said the family is screening visitors to allow Tyler, who is in good condition, to rest comfortably, but his story is sparking interest from media outlets throughout the South. Even the national media wants to feature the survivor’s tale, including “Good Morning, America,” which has offered to fly Tyler to New York City to be a guest on the ABC morning program.

Boeringer, who has worked in law enforcement for 18 years, said Tyler’s case was unique because of the outcome and widespread participation and interest in the search, which even included people in West Virginia searching for him.

“There was a time maybe four years ago in Lincoln County when a lady drove off into a cornfield and was missing for five days, but I didn’t work that case,” Boeringer said. “But I’ve never been a part of anything like this.”