By Dave Smith
21st Space Wing Public Affairs staff writer
PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. — It was a cold, sunny day at Monarch Mountain ski area near Salida, and Senior Airman Elliott Cox, 721st Security Forces Squadron Airman, was heading to the lodge to meet his companions after enjoying a day of snowboarding.
“It was a pretty good average day at the mountain,” Cox recalled. But it would quickly become anything but an average day.
On Jan. 2 Cox rushed to the aid of Ali Watts, 62, who broke her femur and lay helpless at the side of the slope. Cox relied on his training, took control of the situation and assisted Watts until the ski patrol and medical personnel arrived. He continued assisting them in getting Watts safely down the mountain where she was airlifted to Memorial Hospital in Colorado Springs.
He was just heading down the run, passing a bit of a clearing when he caught sight of a woman off the side of the trail laying in powder waving and shouting for help.
“I heard her screaming for help. I knew it wasn’t someone kidding around,” Cox recounted. “I knew I was the first person (to respond) and I had to take initiative.”
Cox took action, coming up to Watts and quickly seeing by the position of her leg that all was not right. He drew upon his security forces training as a first responder, as well as training he received prior to deploying to Afghanistan, to help her. His quick action made a bad situation much better.
Approaching Watts, Cox noticed her position was awkward. Watts, who was trained as a nurse, told him her femur was broken. He called out to another skier, sending him for the ski patrol. He then got behind her and supported Watts, relieving some of the pressure on her broken bone.
Watts, a veteran skier, had just completed a black diamond slope coming to a place where it emptied into some other, less advanced runs. To that point she was having a great day on a new pair of skis and boots. She saw some nice powder, decided to take a run through it and suddenly found herself flying through the air. She doesn’t remember much about it, but the one thing she does remember is horrible.
“I heard it, a noise nobody wants to hear,” Watts said, recalling the sound her femur made when it snapped. She knew it was bad; the notion was confirmed when she saw her right foot turned 180 degrees in the wrong direction. “Then the pain flooded in, indescribable pain.”
But immediate excruciating pain was just one worry Watts had at the moment.
“I only had my voice so I yelled. It felt like forever and I was afraid my voice would run out and it was all I had,” she said, shadows from the terror of the moment playing across her face as she recalled the incident.
For her it seemed an eternity. A few skiers passed by, not hearing her cries for help, before Cox arrived. Kneeling upon his snowboard, Cox supported Watts and comforted her for about 10 minutes until medical help arrived. They administered pain medications, and stabilized her before moving her to the medical care area and then to a helicopter that would take her to the hospital.
Because of their ski equipment and the fact Cox was primarily behind her the whole time, Watts did not know what Cox looked like and did not have a chance to thank him until a meeting in her hospital room Jan 15. It was an emotional meeting.
“I finally get to see what you look like,” Watts said.
Watts was visibly moved facing the person who came to her aid and provided comfort when she needed it most. Cox was thoughtful, being praised for something that was an immediate response for him.
“I don’t remember seeing you, but I remember leaning on you and thinking, ‘thank God.’ You felt so present,” Watts said. “You held my hand and I was grateful. Here was a man I never met telling me it would be OK. And I felt it would be.”
“I am grateful I could be there for you,” was Cox’s reply. “When I saw you waving, because of my training I knew I needed to take the initiative and do something instead of waiting for someone else.”
Because Cox responded to directions from the medical care team, understanding the situation because of his background, he was integrated into her care and transport. His experience and action under pressure was not lost on at least one of the medical responders: Capt. Eric Miller, 140th Medical Group, Buckley Air Force Base and a member of the Monarch ski patrol medical team. Miller nominated Cox for the Gold Knight Award for his action in helping Watts.
“It’s a good feeling, I am appreciative of (the nomination). I didn’t think I was doing anything different than anyone else would,” Cox said.
Cox, who wants to make a career of being a first responder, policeman or firefighter, said the meeting was heartfelt.
“How life changing it can be to know how I helped her,” he shared, “At first I didn’t know how powerful (the meeting with Watts) would be, but I am glad to help.”
Watts’ recovery will take some time. She won’t even be able to put weight on her leg for about three months. But she is a fighter, recently recovering from a bout with cancer, so the chances of Watts hitting the slopes again is reasonable. And when she does she wants Cox to join her.
“We should arrange to go to the slopes together,” she told Cox. He looks forward to that day.
Call it fortune, call it fate that Cox was there right at the time he was needed. Call it serendipity that the first people providing her assistance were in the Air Force and worked in a coordinated fashion to get her off the mountain. But maybe it is more than that.
“My dad was in the Air Force,” Watts said. “I think he would be proud that it was people from the Air Force.”