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Rescuer's Death Is Dark Day for Sunnyslope

February 21, 1990|JENIFER WARREN and JOEL SAPPELL | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

SUNNYSLOPE, Calif — Most of his friends figured he would die a hero, because when disaster erupted in the eastern Sierra Nevada, Vidar Anderson was almost always there.

Forest fires, plane crashes, mountain rescues--these were like a call to arms for Anderson, 58, a volunteer member of the Long Valley Fire Department. Tall and wiry, the retired school bus driver would invariably be the first on the scene. He was aggressive, friends and colleagues said, selfless, and ever calm in the face of danger.

"He was fearless," Ray Turner, a fellow firefighter, recalled Tuesday as he sat in the local fire station, weary, grimy and subdued. "He would risk his life in a minute."

On Monday, Anderson met his match on the treacherous, frozen surface of Convict Lake. As he struggled to reach others drowning in the frigid waters, Anderson crashed through the ice, slipping into the dark of the mountain lake.

A diver from the June Lake search and rescue team managed to slide a rubber boat across the ice and save another would-be rescuer, Cris Baitx, but Anderson had dropped from sight before he could be reached.

News of his death struck like a painful spasm in Sunnyslope, a small community just south of Mammoth Lakes where Anderson lived with his wife and one of his two daughters, and in neighboring towns. The loss of this beloved man--described as the "classic good Samaritan" by one friend--seemed unfathomable.

"Damn, I hate to hear this," said Ed Cereda as he brushed back tears and kicked a boulder of ice outside the general store he manages in Tom's Place, a tiny town along U.S. 395.

"There are only so many of those kind of guys around," Turner said. "Maybe he was the only one we had. Now we've lost him. It's a hell of a loss."

A former Encino resident, Anderson moved with his wife, Ruth, and daughters to the Mammoth Lakes area in 1980. The region was ideal for Anderson, an avid hunter and outdoorsman. The family settled in Sunnyslope, where Anderson built a two-story house and landed a job driving buses for a local school district.

Anderson--whose lean face was distinguished by what one friend described as "permanent smile lines"--became a familiar figure around town. He was the type who loved to stop and chat.

"He was always out and around," recalled Paul Burns, a deputy with the Mono County Sheriff's Department. "You'd talk to him at the doughnut shop, at fire scenes."

Anderson's reputation for selflessness was well-known. After a hunting trip, he would share whatever meat he brought back with local nursing homes and needy families, friends recalled.

In 1982, Anderson joined the volunteer fire department, and he proved to be a gung-ho member. He typically beat everyone else to a disaster scene--including a fiery plane crash that killed three people last month--and often took a lead role in risky rescue operations. After retiring recently from the school district, his work with the fire department increased.

"Either he or I was always the first on the scene of an accident," Burns said. Another friend recalled that Anderson "always liked to be the guy on the nozzle" of a fire hose.

As divers prowled beneath the ice on a grisly search for Anderson's body Tuesday, friends acknowledged that they often feared he would lose his life while seeking to save another.

"He was not the kind of guy we ever thought was going to die in a nursing home of old age," Turner said.

His daughter, Tina Anderson, 38, agreed. And, despite her grief, she said she is proud of all her father accomplished. "I'm glad he died a hero," she said.

Warren reported from Los Angeles and Sappell from Sunnyslope.

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