What might have been a tragic replay of the drowning of a Woodland Hills teen-ager in the rain-swollen Los Angeles River ended happily Thursday when a young man was safely plucked from a tributary by firefighters who were quickly alerted and miraculously close by.
"He doesn't know how lucky he was," said Battalion Chief John Mittendorf, whose helicopter-borne rescue team pulled the 20-year-old Northridge resident from Bull Creek just south of Roscoe Boulevard in Van Nuys.
The young man, whose name was withheld at his and his mother's request, slipped into the creek about 5 p.m. as he rode his bicycle over a chunk of wood near Lassen Street and Gothic Avenue. He suffered minor cuts and bruises during his ride in the 15 m.p.h. waters and required no hospitalization, firefighters said.
Mittendorf noted that from start to finish of the victim's 2 1/2-mile odyssey, an incredible set of coincidences served to save him--starting with an off-duty Los Angeles police officer working in his back yard who spotted the young man floating in the creek.
Sgt. Jim Olmore of North Hills is a police helicopter pilot and knew by heart the direct phone number for the Los Angeles Fire Department's Air Operations Unit at nearby Van Nuys Airport, which he quickly called.
"My back yard is right adjacent to the wash, and I was out back doing some work and I could hear the water running, you know, and just out of curiosity I thought I'd take a look to see how much water was in the wash," Olmore said.
"So I walked over to the wall and looked over and that's when I saw this kid in the water and I couldn't believe my eyes."
The usually dry creek was fuller than usual because of the recent rains. Authorities said it contained an estimated four to five feet of water.
"If I had looked over the wall 10 seconds earlier or later, I'm not sure I would have spotted him," Olmore said.
Two rescue helicopters were immediately dispatched--one to observe and locate the youth and the other to lower a cable-supported firefighter into the water.
Bull Creek runs through Van Nuys Airport and directly behind the Fire Department's helicopter headquarters. So pilot Larry Harris barely had to take off before lowering his airship toward the water as the young man floated under the bridge at Roscoe Boulevard.
Firefighter David Mudd dropped by cable into the creek; he and the young man grabbed onto each other and both were pulled safely to the concrete edge of the channel. The rescued man had to walk a few yards to reach a hot shower in the fire station.
"Boy, was I a dumb. . . ," Mudd recalled the young man saying as soon as he was safe.
Both Mudd and Harris were among the helicopter-borne firefighters who plucked stranded motorists from treetops and their cars when Sepulveda Basin flooded Feb. 10. Mudd was the firefighter who rescued 36-year-old Michael Ross of Studio City, who slipped out of the hoist and dropped about 100 feet back into water before being grabbed a second time.
Mittendorf said the young Northridge man saved Thursday was simply luckier than 15-year-old Adam Paul Bischoff of Woodland Hills, whose heartbreaking struggle against the Los Angeles River on Feb. 12 was chronicled on television.
Bischoff, who also was riding a bicycle when he slid into the river, drowned despite the efforts of firefighters, police and bystanders, who threw him ropes, garden hoses and rafts in a futile effort to save him.
For one thing, Mittendorf said, Bischoff was caught in water moving about 30 m.p.h., while Bull Creek on Thursday was moving about 15 m.p.h. Then, too, all the debris in the river made it harder for helicopter crews to spot him, Mittendorf said. Also, swept nearly 10 miles across the San Fernando Valley in churning, frigid water, Bischoff was too drained of strength to grab hold of anything, Mittendorf said.
On Thursday, Olmore's speedy notification, the "handy location" of the airport and the young man's comparatively short trip put everything in his favor, Mittendorf said.
"Timing was perfect and so were circumstances," he said.
Times staff writer Jim Herron Zamora contributed to this story.