PARADISE, Calif. – Lost for three days in the Northern California mountains, Frederick Dominguez and his three children wrote “Help” in the snow, huddled in a culvert for warmth, sang songs and prayed.
There was no way search crews on the ground were going to find them Wednesday.
The closest rescuers were two miles away and didn’t know exactly where to look for the missing Christmas tree hunters. One snow-laden storm had covered the family’s tracks, and an even bigger storm was hours away from burying them deeper.
The weather finally cleared up enough to make air searches possible Wednesday, but only briefly. A California Highway Patrol helicopter passed over the heavily wooded area, flying through a narrow canyon with cloud-covered mountain ridges on each side, but the crew saw nothing at first.
“We were on our last pass. That was it – the weather was pushing us out,” CHP pilot Steve Ward said.
Then they saw a man atop a small bridge, wildly waving his arms amid a wilderness of white and gray.
Snow from the incoming storm was falling when the helicopter set down in 2 feet of powder and plucked the family, wet and shivering, to safety.
“Our hearts are all full right now,” said Cory Stahl, who closed his pest control business so his employees could help look for Dominguez, an employee. “It’s a very merry Christmas now.”
The helicopter ferried the Dominguez family to safety in two trips; Alexis, 15, and Joshua, 12, were taken out of the woods first. Their 38-year-old father smiled at cheering family and friends later as he and his 18-year-old son, Christopher, emerged from the aircraft.
The four were taken to Feather River Hospital in Paradise, where all were doing well – walking, talking and drinking hot chocolate, treating physician Kurt Bower said. He expected them to be released within hours.
“I’m surprised how good they are,” he said. “There’s a miracle from God in there somewhere.”