After the fall

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Naylor couldn't help him. Perryman asked whether they would bring his son up or down when they got to him. Naylor said down, so Perryman turned around and started walking furiously down the mountain, purposely getting far enough ahead of Naylor that she would feel comfortable to call in for information without his overhearing it. His plan apparently worked, because she yelled out for him to stop. Rangers had found his son, she said, but they wouldn't tell her whether he was dead or alive.

He raced down the mountain. He remembers being stunned by the overwhelming beauty of the place and by the sick sensation that his son was dead. It took three hours to get down the trail from the mountain. The leader of the group that had been searching for Colt met him.

"I'm sorry, Mr. Perryman," he said.

"Is my son dead?" Perryman asked.

"We don't know, but it doesn't look good."

Perryman walked another 50 feet, fell to his knees, and threw up. It took another 45 minutes to drive back to ranger headquarters, where they confirmed that Colt was dead. It appeared that he had slipped as he attempted to descend from the top of Emory Peak and fell 450 feet to his death. Experts felt certain he died almost instantly from the trauma. They told Perryman it was better not to see him. He asked whether he could hold his son's hand, but they advised against it. They identified Colt's body from a picture.

Perryman made the most difficult phone call of his life. "It's not good, babe," he said to his wife. "It's not good. Colt is dead." The trip home was longer and more excruciating than the trip down. No planes had room for the casket, so Perryman hired a hearse to drive his son back to Dallas. Perryman followed behind him with his cousin, who had flown into Midland to meet him.

When he got home, Perryman crawled into bed with his wife and younger son, whom he had told to look out for his mother. They held each other all night long.

The day after the Perrymans laid their oldest son to rest, Mike went to Townview. In honor of his son, the students had draped gray ribbon throughout the halls and decorated Colt's locker with purple hearts inscribed with the words joyful, peaceful, and happiness. Principal Frank Michael Satarino asked Perryman to stop by because he had something he wanted to give him. It was a form that Perryman needed to complete and sign. He wasn't ready to look at paperwork and put the form in an envelope.

Before he left, he asked Satarino if there was going to be an investigation into his son's death. The principal didn't think so. He told Perryman that he had talked to the teachers on the trip and that he was satisfied all proper procedures had been followed.

A week later, Perryman opened the envelope. Inside was an insurance claim form entitling the Perrymans to $10,000. Lee Bloomfield, the trip faculty sponsor, had signed the form certifying that Colt's accident was sustained while participating in official activities under adequate supervision.

Perryman refused to sign it. He was suspicious about exactly what happened on top of that mountain. He couldn't believe his son, with his fear of heights, climbed on his own volition. No one had told the parents that their children would be involved in anything remotely dangerous. No one mentioned anything about a 30-foot, almost vertical rock climb.

Newspapers were reporting about the accident. The district, relying on information provided by Bloomfield, claimed that the students had more than adequate supervision during all their activities. On their hikes, there were adults in front and in back of groups of five students, Bloomfield was quoted as saying. A spokesman also told The Dallas Morning News that all district policies and procedures had been followed.

Perryman asked for a copy of the district's field-trip policy and was shocked at what he found -- an anemic page and a half of guidelines that dealt with transportation requirements and the chain of command for approving field trips, but nothing about safety requirements.

Perryman was now more determined than ever to find out exactly what happened to his son. Before he left Big Bend, he had asked the rangers to conduct an accident investigation. A few weeks after Colt died, the rangers gave him sobering news.

About 25 students and only one adult hiked all the way up to Emory Peak. The kids had been encouraged to walk at their own speed, so they were spread out along the trail. Many of the students had climbed the peak on their own. Perhaps the most damning evidence of the lack of supervision on the trip: Three hours had passed since Colt was last seen before anyone realized he was missing.

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Ann Zimmerman