Over The Cliff
You know those signs that warn of unstable cliffs and rockslides...?
It turns out they're quite serious.
I should be dead.
Right now, I should not be sitting here writing to you. I should be long buried. The fact that I’m not is something that I ponder often.
Seven years ago, God rescued me miraculously. I don’t make that claim lightly.
Seven years ago, the car I was driving went off the side of a canyon road in Malibu, violently crashing down a 300 foot cliff, leaving a trail of debris and wreckage that in the end didn’t so much resemble a car as it did a pile of crushed aluminum cans destined for the recycling bin. I should not have survived.
There have been many of my friends that have commented that I was saved by the German engineering of my car, or by the way I’d modified the car for racing purposes to have extra structural components for chassis rigidity, or write it off to sheer chance or whatever. I will go on record in saying that there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that the fact that I am here today walking in the flesh, still alive, well and intact, is nothing less than a miracle of God.
I’ve shared the account of what happened many times in person, and though I’ve shared some snippets here and there, I’ve never written down the full story until now. Being seven years past the day that I should have died, it’s about time to recollect and tell the story.
For those who don’t know me well enough to know some basic facts: I’m a car guy. I love driving cars, working on cars, modifying cars, looking at cars, racing cars... it’s a passion. I’m drawn to weird, quirky cars that aren’t incredibly popular, but appeal to me for a variety of reasons. Perhaps the aesthetics, perhaps the visceral experience of driving them, perhaps the mechanical engineering or uniqueness of its design. At any rate, one of the weird cars that has been a part of my life for many years is an odd German duck called a Corrado, which was only made in limited quantities for a few scant years. The Corrado has a particularly devoted following of owners who obsessively attempt to keep their cars roadworthy, not an easy task when many parts for it have not been produced in 15 years. I’m one of them.
As it relates to my adventure driving off a cliff with this particular weird car, I’d put over 300,000 miles on it as my daily driver & track car over sixteen years of ownership, and I’d spent the previous two years restoring it mechanically and cosmetically. It had entered into retirement as my daily driver, and was intended to be my garage queen & a show car.
The day of the incident, I’d driven from San Diego up to Malibu for a gathering of people who also owned the same kind of car, and we’d gone up to the top of the hills overlooking the ocean for a photography session. The morning had started off well. It was a beautiful Southern California Saturday, the sun was shining, and we had been having a wonderful time out driving our cars.
After an early morning drive down PCH-1 through Malibu, we went up the hill to a lovely spot at the top of the hills overlooking the ocean, took lots of pictures of our beloved cars, broke up into the aforementioned driving groups, and began heading back down to the beach, where we were to have a cookout.
Being that this was the first long distance drive I’d taken my car on since completely taking it apart, restoring it bolt by bolt, and putting it back together, I was being conservative and hesitant in my driving approach, not wanting to risk breaking anything or get stranded a hundred miles from home. Our gathering of Corrado enthusiasts divided into three groups: those who wanted to drive like Speed Racer, those who wanted to drive in a spirited but less aggressive manner, and those who wanted to be Driving Miss Daisy and ensure that they’d get their aged and temperamental cars home. I was in the latter group.
One of the interesting things about most “scenic” drives in SoCal is the presence of this one particular sign that often goes ignored. It says “Danger: Unstable Cliffs” and has a picture of rocks falling off of a steep hill. The route we were taking from the top of the hills to the beach, Tuna Canyon Road, happens to be a one lane, one way road that winds down along steep cliffsides, and it’s one of those scenic drives that features just such a sign.
As we drove down the road, my group was maintaining a steady rate of about 15mph, essentially coasting along in 1st gear, letting the engine slow the car most of the time. The road weaved back and forth as we descended down through the canyons.
The driver in front of me oddly and suddenly pulled to the side of the road and his passenger waved at me. I thought they must have found another nice spot for a photo and were pulling over to snap some shots, and were waving me on. In retrospect I believe they saw what I did not yet see and were trying to warn me as I drove past, smiling and waving back at them.
I drove right into an ongoing rockslide. It wasn’t a huge thing like an avalanche, more like a steady stream of small marble sized pebbles and rocks that were in the act of spilling across the roadway and continuing their merry way down the cliff. My car lost all traction and drifted sideways toward the curb.
My first thought was simply that I was about to seriously scratch up the nice HRE wheels I’d just had refinished as part of the car restoration, and I was seriously annoyed that there was nothing I could do about that. Being a front wheel drive car, I gave it gas and tried to get the front wheels to pull me out of the infuriatingly casual sideways slide toward gouging up my rims. In the midst of the stream of dirt and pebbles of the rockslide, however, there was no grip to be found and the tires gained no traction.
I heard the horrible grinding sound as the metal of my wheels made contact with the curb and I gritted my teeth, stepping on the brakes and waiting for the car to slow down so I could assess the damage.
What happened next was completely unexpected.
Rather than grind to a halt along the curb, the car tilted up at an impossible angle on two wheels and went sideways over the cliff.
When that happened, when my car went over the side of the cliff, I was angry for an instant.
“This is not what is supposed to happen!!” I thought, momentarily really mad... then I got humble real quick. As the car flipped over and began to tumble down the cliff, I saw a glimpse of the canyon below me and thought, “Well Jesus, here I come!”
People speak about their lives flashing before their eyes in traumatic moments, and of time slowing down. I can attest to both.
I made peace instantly with the fact that I was about to die. Being a person of faith, I resigned myself to what was about to transpire, and I began praying for the sake of the people in my life I was about to leave behind:
"God, please help my wife not to be super angry with You for taking me now. Be with her and help her as a single parent, help her in her grief. She’s going to be so mad at me for managing to kill myself like this. Be with her.
Lord, please help my children not be bitter with You for taking their daddy away, the way I was angry at You for so long when my dad was killed. Please draw them close to You through this time."
All the while, the car was tumbling violently down the cliff wall. The windows smashed and broke out as tree branches and boulders pierced them. Brush reached into the car and caught my face and arms, cutting me. I had a horrifying thought: “What if I survive this? What if I’m horribly maimed?”
Then the car started to roll even more violently, crashing end over end and sideways, making my body flail wildly from the belted in confines of my Recaro seats. I had an image flash through my mind of my arm flying out the window and getting lopped off by the car against a rock. Quickly I pulled my arms in and tucked in as hard as I could, grabbing the bottom of the steering wheel.
[Note: you should NOT do this in a collision!! As a racing instructor I knew this already my head, but in heat of the moment I did not follow the advice I knew to be best, which is to try to relax and let what ever is going to happen, happen. We’ll come back to that.]
I continued to pray as I tumbled and the hillside seemed to fight to grab me through the frame of the car. “Lord, You can have my eyesight if you want, but please let me keep my arms and my hands – if You’re not done with me here, I really want to be able to keep playing guitar for You.” I'd been leading worship on guitar in churches for many years.
The sheer violence of the forces involved, the crashing noises, the world turning and twisting as I had no control of my destiny... they all kept on going. And kept on going. I said to God, “Okay this is getting ridiculous. Can we just have my head hit a rock and be done here?”
Still the moment stretched on. Time definitely slowed down for me as the world rolled around and around. I was still conscious, and starting to get annoyed that the experience was not quickly coming to an end. I yelled out, “Seriously???!!! Can we be done with this now?”
Suddenly the ride ended. The car was upright, facing uphill. Perhaps it was rocking slightly. Perhaps it was due to my equilibrium being all messed up from being shaken not stirred that made it feel like I was still moving. Probably the latter.
From having watched way too many episodes of CHiPs growing up, I had a moment where I feared that my trip down the cliff wasn’t actually over yet, and that sense of still moving had me believe the car was now teetering on the edge of yet another cliff, waiting to plummet again.
Ever so slowly, I turned my head to look behind me, until I could see that I was in fact at the bottom of the gorge. The ride was over.
I wiggled my fingers and my toes, carefully leaned forward and moved my torso to see if the rest of me was intact. Once I’d ascertained that I was in fact alive and in one piece, I raised my arms and yelled, “Praise God!! I’m alive!!!!”
I unbuckled and began to try to extricate myself from the wreckage. There was no way my door was going to open, it was crushed inward. Instead, I crawled out of the hole where the glass moonroof had previously resided. As I stood on the crumpled up skin of the car’s roof, I looked up to see a line of concerned looking people standing along the top of the cliff, my companions on our scenic drive. I waved at them and yelled up the hill, “I’m okay! I’m just going to be a few minutes though.”
They yelled down that they had called for emergency services and that they were trying to find a rope or something to help get me back up the cliff. I looked down to survey the damaged I’d done to the car. To be fair, I’d given it a 110% effort at destruction. There wasn’t a whole lot more I could have possible done to it to make it worse. I had that Ferris Bueller moment, thinking to myself, “You killed the car.”
I sat down on what was left of the roof of the car and prayed to thank God for preserving me.
I had a moment with the Lord that I can only describe as life changing, as if driving off the cliff didn’t already fall into that category.
In that moment, I heard with startling clarity a still small voice speak to me, “You were purchased at a price. You are not your own, you are mine. There is work to be done.”
My mind flashed to the passage that says that someone who puts his hand to the plow and turns back is not fit for the work. It was a serious challenge and my spirit responded, “Not turning to the right or to the left, not just my hand but with all my strength, Lord, let me be about your business. No turning back. I’m yours.”
I found myself energized in my spirit, and elated to have renewed life and purpose, I stood back up.
My years of Boy Scouts kicked in and it occurred to me that I should assess myself further for injuries. I began systematically checking all my limbs for breaks. I felt my head and felt wetness in my hair, and what felt like rough gravel embedded in my head. I knew I was bleeding up there and should take measures to keep it clean and protected. My baseball hat had stuck with me through the downhill tumble and had landed right in my passenger seat, so I grabbed that and put it on, to try to keep some pressure on my head wound and keep more dirt from getting into it. My left arm had taken the brunt of the repeated impacts with brush and rock and hillside, and was lacerated pretty good. I had nothing to wrap it with, so I just put pressure on it to try to stop the bleeding.
At about that time, the combination of spiritual high, adrenaline, testosterone and stupid kicked in, and I glanced back up at the cliff.
For many years, I’d enjoyed recreational indoor rock climbing, and as I looked at the hill, I thought to myself, “That’s only about a level 4... I can do that.” So I grabbed what had formerly been a part of my car to use as a climbing tool, and I began to make my way slowly up the canyon wall.
car not visible at the bottom, but that's a section of the cliff I went down... and climbed back up
Being a warm day in SoCal, I thought to myself, “It would be really lame to have survived driving off a cliff, and then get bitten by a rattlesnake,” so I began intentionally shaking all the brush as I climbed, so as to scare off any venomous reptiles that could have potentially been in my way. I didn’t, however notice that nearly all the brush that I was grabbing onto, climbing through and shaking was made up of poison oak. We’ll come back to that.
As I made my way up, I was finding bits and pieces of my belongings that had yard saled out of the car as it had rolled down the cliff. I came upon my leather jacket, and put that on to protect my cut up arm. Then I came across my satchel with my laptop, the remains of my crushed cell phone, my sunglasses, my wallet... it was a bit of an easter egg hunt as I went!
Finally I made it all the way up to the top. By that point, the adrenaline, testosterone and stupid had worn off and I was exhausted. Fortunately, some of the folks in our driving group had gallons of water with them (in case their old cars overheated on the drive) and were able to use them to wash off some of my injuries and rehydrate me.
One of the guys asked me if the car was alright. No one could actually see the wreckage itself from our vantage point, as it sat in a low point in the gulch. I responded, "I may have a flat. A few scratches, but I'm sure it will buff right out." I think a couple of folks may have actually believed me, given that I had just climbed back up, largely intact.
As I sat there at the side of the cliff I’d just crashed down, the EMS rescue helicopter showed up and flew down the canyon, looking for victims in the wreckage. We waved them off, everyone pointing to me. The pilots seemed to understand that I was the idiot that had plummeted down there, and flew off.
Rescue helicopter flying down to look for me as I waved it off, having already climbed back up the clif
A few minutes later, an ambulance arrived on scene. The paramedics were horrified that I’d climbed up afterward, giving me a really hard time about how I could have gone down the cliff a second time and finished the job. As it were, they were obliged to strap me down and take me to the trauma center to check for internal injuries.
EMS workers perplexed that anyone would be so stupid as to climb back up the cliff
In the ambulance, I borrowed a phone from one of the EMS workers and called my wife. The conversation went like this:
Me: Honey, it’s me. I’m calling from a different phone because mine is messed up.
Wife: Okay, love. What’s up?
Me: I’m going to be late getting home. I’m alright, but I wrecked the car.
Wife, not missing a beat: You drove off a cliff, didn’t you?
Me: (long pause) ... Um, well, yeah. Actually.
Wife. WHAT. ARE YOU SERIOUS??? HAND THE PHONE TO SOMEONE ELSE!!!
Me: (hands phone to paramedic)
Paramedic: This is one of the medical response team members.
Wife: ... (sound of yelling) ...
Paramedic: Yes, ma’am. He drove his car off a cliff. Yes, ma’am, he seems to be okay, but we’re taking him to the hospital to be sure. No, ma’am, I’m not lying to you. He’s really pretty good for a guy who drove off a cliff.
Wife: ... (sound of more yelling) ...
Paramedic: We’ll have him call you when he’s all checked out at the hospital, he’ll be at UCLA Medical Center. (hangs up)
Paramedic: Sounds like you’re in big trouble for almost killing yourself, buddy.
We got to the hospital, where the response team began tending to my wounds immediately. They cleaned up my arm and got that stitched up pretty quickly, then I took off my hat and showed them that mess. Sparing the grotesque details, my skull was fractured and it took some doing to get it cleaned up and put together properly, involving the use of what I can only describe as a Home Depot staple gun and a set of stainless steel heavy duty staples applied without anesthetic. I was grateful that they decided they could perform the repair without having to shave my head and make me look like Frankenstein and freak out my 3 year old daughter. The chief resident apparently had a young daughter himself and kept that in mind as they addressed where I was going to need sutures and staples.
After that ordeal, I was starting to get dressed when one of the ambulance drivers came back in and asked, “How is the guy who drove off the cliff?”
“What guy who drove off a cliff?” asked the chief resident.
“We just brought him in, oh there he is. Yeah, him. He drove off a cliff. Didn’t he tell you?”
I spoke, “It’s entirely possible that I failed to mention that detail.”
The chief resident approached me incredulously. “You drove off a CLIFF??”
“WHY didn’t you tell us that??”
“You didn’t ask,” I replied. “Besides, I had a head injury. You want to rely on the word of a guy whose skull was cracked?”
The chief resident groaned and turned to the other medical professionals tending to me. “Okay then, we can’t give him an MRI because we just put staples in his head, but we need to order up an ultrasound, full body x-rays, and ... (long list of tests & medical terminology),” the doctor told the rest of the ER team.
It took another 7 hours before I was cleared to leave, the doctors having determined that I didn’t have an internal hematoma or any unseen injuries.
In the meantime, I realized that I had originally planned to be back in San Diego in time to lead Saturday evening worship services as one of the pastors on staff at my church, and that wasn’t going to be possible. I called on a friend to step in at the last moment in my place for that evening and most likely the next morning, and he graciously agreed to cover me. I understand that the teaching pastor announced that evening in service that “Pastor Brendan was in a car accident today but it wasn’t that serious and he’ll be back with us next week.”
Of course, when the wreckage of my car was dragged up out of the canyon, towed back to San Diego and deposited in the church parking lot the following week for all to see, he had to issue an amended statement in the that week’s service: “It’s entirely possible I understated the severity of the car accident Pastor Brendan was in.”
Saturday evening when I finally arrived home – a few of the members of the Corrado owners club had stuck around to make sure I was okay and get me back safely – I was starting to feel the initial soreness of being bounced around. And I was starting to get a little itchy in spots where I’d gotten scratched up. Regardless, my family was glad to see me whole and intact, and they tucked me into bed.
The next morning I could barely move. My shoulders were enflamed, all of my body parts gave me agonizing shocks of pain when I tried to move in the slightest, which made me even more miserable because it seemed like every inch of my body was itching, with large red welts growing in intensity and demanding attention.
I attempted to shower, thinking that the warm water might help me, and realized the nature of all my welts as some of them were beginning to produce pustules oozing green nastiness. Yep, I’d exposed myself to copious amounts of poison oak, which I’m terribly allergic to. It was going to require a trip to the doctor to get steroid shots to keep infection under control, and even with the relatively soft cushy ride of the mommyvan of awesomeness, every little road imperfection made my body ache as the effects of full body whiplash settled in.
The doctor also determined after I described the experience, that I’d managed to probably tear both of my rotator cuffs in the process of my death grip on the steering wheel and getting yanked violently back and forth every time the car’s wheels hit a hard surface or object. So that was going to mean possible surgery and definite physical therapy.
After we got him, I melted into my recliner in the living room, determined not to move unless absolutely necessary.
My 3 year old daughter, who loved nothing more than to pounce on daddy, had been carefully coached to refrain from doing so because I was very hurt. She approached me with a great deal of concern on her face.
“Yes, baby girl?”
“If you had died, would you be with Jesus?”
“Yes, baby girl.”
She took that in and seemed to ponder for a moment, then she said, “Okay daddy. It’s okay if you die. We’ll just get a new daddy.” And she wandered off, quite satisfied that I’d be with Jesus so all would be well. I was slightly horrified and simultaneously amused at her 3 year old logic.
In the coming days I returned to work at the church to find that friends had put gifts on my office desk: a vintage Transformers toy that happened to be a sports car named “Cliffjumper”, a t-shirt that said “I do my own stunts” and a VHS copy of a TV show called “The Fall Guy”.
One of my theologian friends had a wonderful thought in reflecting upon the whole experience:
“Isn’t it cool that God knew before the foundations of the earth were laid, that you were going to crash down that cliff, and arranged the rocks and hills and bushes in such a way that you didn’t die but were preserved even though you tumbled down, and that He gave the German engineers insight to design that car in such a way that it would hold together and keep you more or less protected inside?” Good perspective to meditate on. Thanks for that, Bob Sweeney. Still gives me pause when I begin to try to wrap my head around the complexities of God’s plan and provision.
Six days after driving off the cliff, a friend drove me back up there to revisit the spot and take pictures so I could prove to my insurance company that the rock slide had indeed taken place. Interestingly enough, we found that the road had been closed.
Apparently... it was dangerous.
Closing the barn door after the horse has left and gone over the cliff
Incidentally, I’d previously planned to take a cross country trip the next weekend, and while I was still itchy and sore, I did go ahead and jump on the plane to head out to Atlanta and took part in the recording of Matt Redman’s 10,000 Reasons live album. Inspired by a few days spent with him, Jonas Myrin, Chris Tomlin, Louie Giglio, Jesse Reeves and Daniel Carson, I sat down at my hotel during the trip and wrote a song in response to God saving me from certain death on that cliff a week prior. “No Turning Back” was my heart’s declaration of my life renewed and redeemed with a purpose, and the song itself was built by renewing an old traditional song that had spoken to generations of believers already. It speaks strongly to the Greatest Commandment as well as a commitment to be one who would set his hand to the plow and not turn back, not waiting for others to come along but proceeding boldly in trust, confidence and determination.
When I arrived back in San Diego, and had the opportunity to survey more closely the remains of my former car, I made a couple of observations: The only place in the roof that had not completely collapsed was precisely where I had been sitting. I imagine some burly guardian angel stationed himself right there to keep the roof from caving in on me. Had there been any passengers, they would have died, as the rest of the car was completely crushed inward.
These thoughts continue to dwell upon my mind, reflecting on the experience even now:
You were purchased at a price. You are not your own, you are mine.
You were redeemed with a purpose. There is work to be done.
Yes, Lord. Not just my hand to the plow, but all I am, with all my being and all my strength.
No turning back.
At the risk of sounding trite, here are a few parting thoughts:
Our next breath is not guaranteed. Don’t waste it. You never know when you’re going to veer suddenly from the road you’re on.
Worshipers of God: use everything you have and everything you are to glorify God.
1 Corinthians 10:31 is a healthy reminder that no matter who you are, where you are, what you’ve got... it can all be for God’s glory if our hearts are in the right place.
Don't drive off cliffs.
It may sound like a good idea, but climbing back up is not terribly convenient.
Brendan Prout is a husband, dad, pastor and worship leader. He loves training and equipping others to do the work of ministry they are called to, all things geeky, good food, cars, coffee, and not driving off cliffs anymore.