SWEET TEA

The camping trip was her daddy’s idea.

Roger Hartness, a slowtalking self-described hillbilly, dreamed up the camp out for members of Cherokee Village First Baptist Church. One member harumphed that he saw nothing spiritual about that and to count him out.

Roger, rattled, prayed: “God, let this be about You.”

This particular Spring River waterfall where the three girls secured their canoe was a little one, three or so feet tall, the water top side less than two feet deep.

Olivia Hartness, Brittany Brison and Anna Ingram climbed out of the canoe to walk the rocks. Olivia — her father was the organizer — bent over to retrieve a flip-flop, wobbled, fell backwards over the waterfall and hung there, a foot wedged in a crevice, the current pummeling her and pinning her beneath the water.

Olivia’s father was a halfmile away baiting trot lines for catfish when he heard the screams. The hillbilly who had organized this outing spoke to the Lord again: “Please don’t let this happen.”

By the time pastor Larry White’s boat reached the waterfall, Olivia had been underwater for a couple of minutes. As seconds passed, and then minutes, the pastor couldn’t free her. Then he stopped worrying about breaking bones and broke Olivia loose.

The current took her under, and she bobbed up into the arms of George Brison, Brittany’s father. The two men rolled Olivia into the pastor’s boat, and George, fresh from CPR training, went to work.

This is the gist of the emergency call that went out over radios and scanners: 12-year-old girl under water in excess of six minutes. Unresponsive.

Hopeless, in other words. Just remove the body.

A local doctor sent her by helicopter to Children’s Hospital in Little Rock. Virginia, her mother, sat beside her bed in intensive care and thanked God for the 12 good years.

The river pinned Olivia for six to eight minutes, witnesses said, and she didn’t breathe on her own for another five. By human measure, her family believes, Olivia died June 26, 2003.

But there were some coincidences — the family calls them miracles — about which they learned only later. George Brison’s boat motor never started on the first crank, but this time it did, putting him in the right spot to grab Olivia. As George attempted to resuscitate her in the boat, they banged into a rock, which knocked the first breath out of Olivia, who had no water in her lungs.

So Friday afternoon, at the Pizza Hut in Ash Flat, Olivia told me the story, with her parents and kid sister, Amber, recounting their own memories. As it turned out, they say, the camp out was about God, but not in the way Roger had imagined.

“I remember falling down and sliding. I remember being underwater. I’m reaching up, screaming, praying. I went black.”

Olivia, 18 now, left Children’s 16 hours after she arrived with only scrapes.

“In that sense of helplessness,” she says, “I had a hope, like God said, ‘You’re in my hands, Olivia, whatever happens.’ Looking back, God’s so evident in everything. I didn’t have oxygen. That’s impossible.”

JAY GRELEN – Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

Kenneth Heard, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reporter, first wrote about Olivia’s accident in July 2003.

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