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Joy rising from the depths<br> Agony from teen's 350-foot fall at Zoar Valley has turned into miraculous story of recovery for Carriero family

Editor's Note: The Christmas season traditionally is a time for giving to others and reflecting on life's blessings. In this week before Christmas, The Buffalo News is telling the stories of local people who have been touched by that spirit.

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The joy of this Christmas for members of the Carriero family has its roots in their depths of anguish and fear last month, when 18-year-old Drew went missing while hunting in the woods above Zoar Valley.

The Jamestown Community College criminal-justice student knew he had wandered into the Deer Lick Nature Preserve while tracking a deer. But he didn't know he was perilously close to the edge until he took a step on the wet and muddy ground and went sliding down the wooded portion of a 350-foot cliff.

"I was trying to catch myself, but there was nothing around me. It was like a chute," he recalled.

The Gowanda teenager survived the Nov. 22 plunge -- one of the few who have lived after falling such a distance.

"If you met him, you would know there is a reason for him to live," said his mother, Kelly Carriero.

He's strong and in shape, has a positive outlook, and dreams of being in law enforcement and helping people.

And on Christmas, Drew, who has been in a wheelchair since the fall because of his injuries, plans to walk, with crutches, to his family get-togethers.

"Oh, yeah, I'm not going to be in the wheelchair. I'm using crutches, I don't care how bad it hurts," he said.

It could have been a much different story.

When Drew started slipping, he couldn't stop, but he was able to look down past the wooded area to the 50-foot drop-off.

"I saw water, and the hill just stopped, and I looked at it and thought I was going to die if I didn't catch myself somehow," he said.

The hockey player and former high school lacrosse and soccer player at Gowanda Central used his gun, grinding it into the earth, to stop himself.

"I tried crawling back up, at an angle to get to some trees. Then, once I was next to some trees, I remember I put my foot against a tree to hold myself there, but then somehow, from there, I did a back flip," he said, "and that was the last thing I remember."

When he came to, he was sitting up on the bottom of the gorge, with his legs stretched out in front of him in Cattaraugus Creek. He didn't know it yet, but his right leg was broken, his skull and orbital bones around his eye were fractured, and his right shoulder was dislocated. Another consequence of the fall was intermittent double vision in his right eye.

The morning had started early when Drew went hunting off Point Peter Road at daybreak with a friend and the friend's father. Sometime after 8 a.m., he took a shot at a buck, but he wasn't sure whether he hit it. His friend took a walk, found some blood and told Drew to meet him at the beehives, a short walk away. But Drew went in the wrong direction.

He wandered onto the 3.2-mile White Trail, talking with his friend on the radio several times. He knew he was lost, and even checked Google Earth from his iPhone to look for the road.

He didn't realize he was so close to the edge of the cliff. It was hilly terrain, and he had slid down gullies and climbed hills while looking for a trail.

"I probably really only did take a couple steps that way, then I was sliding," he said.

At the bottom, he tried to crawl out of the creek using his good leg and arm, but he couldn't. But Drew was confident that help would come. He said he didn't panic.

"That would make it worse," he said.

It was a little different for his family.

Andy Carriero, who works for the Gowanda Public Works Department, couldn't believe that his level-headed son was missing, and he called his wife, who works for the Holland School District, about noon.

"We don't know anything right now, but we know he's lost," he told her.

She drove home, picking up their daughter, Jessica, 21, from work in Gowanda.

Kelly Carriero never dreamed that her son could have fallen into Zoar Valley.

"That never crossed my mind," she said. " My thought was he was possibly shot by a hunter."

The Carrieros waited through the afternoon with family members at the command center set up off Point Peter Road.

"Because we live here, and we understand how the rescues go, you kind of understand the time frame," Andy Carriero said.

And the longer they went without finding Drew, the worse it looked.

More than 250 emergency responders from more than two dozen agencies converged in the Cattaraugus County town of Persia for the search, and the eventual rescue, and they have the grateful appreciation of the family. By midafternoon, word came that hunters heard him yelling, and the Erie County Sheriff's Air One helicopter crew noticed his orange jacket just as they were heading out to refuel.

A sheriff's deputy, who had crossed chest-high water to get to him, pulled him out of the water. A couple of hours later, emergency responders made it in by foot. They moved him to higher ground three times as the creek water rose. Then late at night, the State Police Special Operation Response Team, expert in rappelling and conducting "high-angle" rescues, pulled Drew up to the top of the cliff in a basket.

"He was meant to live for some reason, because everything fell into place," Andy Carriero said.

The second night in the hospital, Drew blurted out in his sleep: "Stay strong. Stay positive. Failure is not an option."

He doesn't remember saying that, but his parents believe that positive attitude helped him that day.

Drew said his experience has made him more determined to go into law enforcement. And it has changed him a little, he said.

"I was always positive, anyway," he said, "so it was kind of, I just got more positive, I guess."

"If you don't believe that there's a higher power, you're kidding yourself -- at least the way I look at it," Andy Carriero said, looking at his son safe at home, next to the Christmas tree.

e-mail: bobrien@buffnews.com

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