VALENCIA, Calif. – By the fifth night, David La Vau was convinced he was going to die.
The 67-year-old father of six was trapped at the bottom of a remote cliff in the Angeles National Forest after his car plunged off the mountain. His car landed next to a second vehicle with the decomposing remains of its driver inside.
Too weak to scream for help any longer, La Vau limped to his crushed car and wrote on the dusty trunk:
“I love my kids. Dead man was not my fault. Love, Dad.”
A day later, his children were roaming the canyon road in a desperate search for their missing dad. They heard a weak cry from below the steep cliff. It was their father. And he was alive.
“He cried and we cried when we saw him,” said his son Sean. “We couldn’t believe it.”
On Friday, as La Vau recovered from a dislocated shoulder and a few broken bones at Henry Mayo Newhall Memorial Hospital in Valencia, his family gathered in a private waiting room near the Intensive Care Unit and recounted what happened.
La Vau disappeared Friday night, Sept. 23. The retired cable man was known for taking weekend trips on his own – the beach, wine country, shopping trip – so the family didn’t worry.
But when Wednesday came and no one had heard from him, they filed a missing person report with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. Officials told the family it would take several days to process the report, Sean said.
“We didn’t have time for wait,” he said. So with his sisters, girlfriend and other relatives, Sean turned the kitchen of his Lancaster, Calif., home into search-and-rescue headquarters.
They called his bank to find a credit card trail, his cellphone company to check his last calls, his doctor to see if he had checked in and his gym, where he religiously swam and walked on the treadmill.
With help from police, the family on Thursday pinpointed the area near the mountains where his cellphone had stopped working.
In two cars, Sean and a half dozen other relatives set off to search with a backpack full of water, bandages and a hammer.
Driving slowly along the mountains, they followed the path, stopping every few minutes to peek over the cliff.
By sundown, as daylight was disappearing, they came to a place where the two-lane road twisted sharply, with little warning.
Sean got out of the car and stood in front of the mountain – hoping.
Suddenly, he heard a sound.
“It was a little moan,” he said. “Like a cat or a dog.”
When he yelled out, “Hello!” someone responded down below.
It was faint, but Sean said he knew who it was.
“I thought, ‘Oh my God,’ ” Sean said. “It’s him.”
He looked down and could see his father’s blue Toyota Corolla, crushed like a tin can.
Quickly, he and a friend started down the steep, rocky cliff, grabbing on to any shrub they could find.
When Sean finally reached the bottom he saw his father flat on the dirt, his battered body huddled next to the mountain.
He looked thinner, his face was caked with dry blood and he struggled to speak.
A few feet away, there was a second car in a ravine: a silver Toyota. Inside, there was the body of a man who had begun to decompose. Authorities said they believe that car had driven off the cliff a few days before La Vau.
On Friday, in a hospital waiting room, Sean, his sisters and his mother gathered, moving back and forth every few minutes to visit their father, who was alert and talking about the accident.
He said he had gone to Oxnard for the day to walk around and have dinner.
On his way back home, he came up to a sharp curve in the road and was suddenly blinded by the high beams of an oncoming car. He lost control and drove off the cliff.
“He said ‘I didn’t think that fall was ever going to end,’ ” Sean said.
La Vau remembers sliding wildly, nose first, down the cliff. Then flipping and slamming violently into the ground. He blacked out.
When he came to, the sun was breaking over the canyon.
From there began six days of intense survival.
In the day, when the heat rose and the sun bounced off the shiny mountains, La Vau struggled to find shade under the shadow of a cliff. And at night, when the air seemed to turn to ice, he huddled next to the same cliff.
The second day, as his hunger began to overwhelm him, he hunted through his car – and the car of the deceased man – for food. Crackers, nuts, anything.
But he found nothing.
So he began to eat leaves off shrubs and trees and the tiny ants that crawled over his arms and marched neatly on the dirt.
One day, Sean said, his father told him a bumblebee tried to sting him. Angry and annoyed, La Vau killed it. Then, he ate it.
He told his family there were days when he was afraid he wouldn’t survive. He could hear cars driving up above, so close, but yet, so far.
Still, something told him he would be found. He hoped it would be his family who tracked him down.