A 14-year-old boy who was sucked into the Pacoima Wash while trying to rescue a 10-year-old managed to save both himself and the other boy Wednesday by grabbing onto a metal ladder on the side of the concrete waterway and hoisting them both out.
As they were swept together for three miles through the fast-moving waters, David Copado of Sylmar helped lift Bret Caillouet above the water, encouraging the Van Nuys grade-schooler to hold tight to him, the two boys said.
"I think he's my hero," Bret said as he lay in the emergency room, breathing specially heated air to warm his body.
"I don't think I could have survived that without him."
Both boys suffered hypothermia, as well as bumps and bruises, but were in good physical condition Wednesday afternoon, according to a doctor at Holy Cross Hospital in Mission Hills.
The dramatic rescue, aided by other passersby who flocked to the wash banks to offer their help, came almost a year after 15-year-old Adam Paul Bischoff drowned in the flood-swollen Los Angeles River after he was swept 10 miles down the fast-running waterway.
Like Adam, Bret Caillouet was riding his bicycle in the wash when he was swept downstream. Bret's mother, Nanci Caillouet said she dropped Bret and his friends off near the El Cariso Golf Course to ride their bikes on dirt hills in the rustic area. Bret had been warned, she said, not to go near the water.
But while exploring, Bret said he decided to ride to a dry patch in the middle of the wash. On his way back to his friends, the current he was riding through became too strong and the bike slipped on the mossy surface.
"I thought I could get back up, but I kept slipping," Bret said. Then, he said, the sides of the wash became narrower, the water deeper and he found he was being carried downstream.
The water, about 2 to 3 feet deep, was moving at 15 to 18 m.p.h. Los Angeles Police Officer Michael Windsor said.
About three-quarters of a mile downstream, Bret was swept past David, who heard the boy's screams and tried to help him out. "I grabbed hold of his hand, but he pulled me in because he was going so fast," David said. "All I thought was 'I've got to get him out.' "
David said he tried to regain his balance but was powerless against the strong current, even as Bret was saying that he was becoming weak.
"I told him to hold onto me and not let go," David said. "I was trying to get to the side and I couldn't."
As they rushed toward a fork in the wash, David said, the boys became separated. But about that time, they realized that the water was shallower.
David said he managed to pull Bret to the side and push him onto the bank of the wash, hauling himself up afterward.
Meanwhile, two other boys heard their calls near Laurel Canyon Boulevard and Paxton Street. Alberto Lopez, 14, of San Fernando, said he and his friend, Rafael Perez, 13, ran along the banks of the wash trying unsuccessfully to throw a rope they had found to the boys in the wash.
When David got himself and Bret out of the water, Alberto and Rafael helped the boys climb over a chain-link fence and flagged down Susan Garcia, a 38-year-old Pacoima woman driving past in a van. Garcia piled the boys in the van and called authorities for help from a nearby gas station.
In the hospital, where they lay side by side in the emergency room, David and Bret exchanged phone numbers.
Nanci Caillouet said she was eager for their family to remain in touch with David. "I'm so thankful for David, who jumped in after him," Caillouet said as she stood in the hospital hallway.
"It wasn't a real wise decision, but I sure am glad he made it."