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SAVING THE DAY : Search and Rescue Volunteers Find Excitement, Fulfillment

May 11, 1989|JOHN NEEDHAM | Times Staff Writer

George Berg, systems programmer for a supermarket chain by day and adventure-seeker by weekend, lay on his back in a rope and metal stretcher dangling from a five-story building--30 feet above the ground.

On the top floor of the building, half a dozen men snapped pulleys and ropes together and checked for tension. It was up to them to keep Berg from plunging to the ground. Lew Shaver hung in his own harness next to Berg, ready to assist him.

No one panicked, but an edge crept into their voices as first one man and then another suggested various ways to solve the problem of getting Berg and Shaver lowered to the ground. Finally, all was ready. In a scene familiar to rock and mountain climbers, the line was played out a few feet at a time, then "locked off" with a shackle, then let out a few more feet and locked off again. At last Berg and Shaver reached the ground. Both walked away smiling.

"It's a little unusual for me to be in the Stokes" stretcher, Berg said. "Because I'm used to being outside and in control." But wasn't he worried as the minutes stretched by and he was left dangling in air? "Actually, no, because I know these folks well, and I trust every one of them."

Besides, this was only an exercise--part of the training he receives as one of the 41 men and women who belong to Orange County Search and Rescue, a private, nonprofit, volunteer group whose members help police and fire departments, civic groups and just about anyone needing assistance in finding people and getting them out of trouble.

Their training exercises and rescues can take them from the concrete canyons of Orange County cities to the high hills of Southern California mountain ranges.

They have set up treatment stations for firefighters battling brush fires in Cleveland National Forest and helped fight the flooding that overwhelmed Lake Elsinore several years ago.

In recent months, the group beat the bushes alongside the Santa Ana River in search of 9-year-old Nadia Puente, who was kidnaped while walking home from a Santa Ana school and eventually found dead in Los Angeles, and took to the skies in an airplane and helicopter to find an Anaheim man in the desert near the Arizona border. With mere hours to spare, the volunteers flew the man back to receive a kidney transplant he needed to keep him alive.

"I thought they did absolutely a wonderful job," said Ann Breckenridge, donor coordinator for United Western Medical Center-Santa Ana, which in March asked for the group's help in finding Charles Ridgeway, who received the kidney.

Tony Miranda, a Santa Ana policeman who is also a Search and Rescue member and serves as the group's training officer, was involved in finding Ridgeway and getting him back to the county for the kidney transplant.

Miranda flew to the desert in the pre-dawn darkness with Bob Tur, a KNX radio reporter-pilot who is not a group member. When they arrived, they found that Imperial County sheriff's deputies and a Bureau of Land Management ranger had called off their search for the night.

"We got to Brawley and I said, 'Hey, we're here. Let's look for this guy ourselves if we've got gas,' " Miranda said.

"It was Easter Sunday and I thought it'd be quiet out there, with everyone home with their families," Miranda said. "Well, as it turned out, there happened to be a thousand trailers out there, and they all looked alike to me."

After broadcasting their mission over the chopper's loudspeakers, Tur and Miranda managed to find Ridgeway's son, who had driven to the desert himself to search for his father but got stuck in the fine desert sand. The younger Ridgeway directed Tur to the spot where his parents usually camped, and they found the elder Ridgeway.

Tur flew Ridgeway back to the Brawley airport, where Search and Rescue had a plane waiting for him. The plane flew the patient to John Wayne Airport, where Gary Stockdale, the group's chief, was waiting to drive him to Western Medical.

"It was after I got there that I started seeing all the desert and recognized how tough it was going to be," Miranda said. "But we just wanted to persevere. Thank goodness we did, because (Ridgeway) got his kidney, and the doctor said it was just in time. It just made my day--Easter Sunday and we managed to save a life."

Tustin Police Sgt. Chris George said Search and Rescue members are "well organized" and have helped her department search for missing persons without getting in the way of police.

About a year ago, "we had an elderly missing female, missing for quite some time during that cold snap we had," George said. "They came out, stayed with us through the night, combing the countryside for her. We wound up finding her the next morning when it became daylight. They really did a good job for us."

Ray Montoya, fire chief for the city of Orange, says the Search and Rescue group is "very well-respected throughout Southern California." He praised the group's training officers as people who know what they're doing and are good teachers.

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