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Adventure Turns Into Tragedy for Family : Accident: A young man who was on an around-the-world journey is presumed dead after falling into a gorge in Taiwan.

April 29, 1993|ROBIN GREENE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

LA CANADA FLINTRIDGE — Just two weeks ago, life could not have been better for the Crawford family of La Canada Flintridge.

Gordon and Dona and their youngest son, Brett, had just taken a tour of the Far East. And Brett was off on the rest of his around-the-world adventure.

"The last thing he said was 'I love you Mom. I love you Dad.' And we said our goodbys," Dona Crawford said.

But on April 19, less than a day after they had left their son in Taiwan and returned to their home in Southern California, the Crawfords got the telephone call that every parent dreads. Brett, 21, was missing on a hike and feared dead.

Gordon Crawford and family friend and minister Chuck Osburn took the next plane back to Taiwan to search for Brett in Taroko Gorge National Park, where he had reportedly fallen into a gorge while hiking with two friends.

Rescue crews searched for four days in hopes of finding the young man alive.

"It became dramatically obvious that he could not have survived," Osburn said.

So, on Monday, Osburn had the heartbreaking task of leading a memorial service for Brett at the La Canada Presbyterian Church, where more than 500 people remembered a young man who loved the wilderness that took his life.

Exact details of the accident that took Brett's life may never be known. But, Osburn said, the three young men apparently decided to take a midnight hike through the park in search of its famous hot springs.

"We can say it was a foolish thing to do," Osburn said, "but he was a competent, confident guy in the outdoors. He lived on the red line. He didn't take things the play-it-safe way."

It was that sense of adventure that prompted Brett, a graduate of La Canada High School, to take a semester off from his studies at the University of Colorado, and apply for the University of Pittsburgh's "Semester at Sea" program.

His trip around the world began Jan. 29 in Nassau, and the young man had already seen parts of South America, South Africa, India and Malaysia by the time his parents caught up with him in Hong Kong the week of April 12.

The Crawford family set off for China, where they toured Beijing and the Great Wall. They spent one last day together in Taiwan visiting Gordon Crawford's college roommate and fraternity brother, banker David Crockett.

After saying their goodbys, Gordon and Dona Crawford arrived home the evening of April 18. Hours later, Crockett, who is president of the Bank of California in Taiwan, was listening to the English-language radio and heard a report that Brett Crawford was missing in the park. Crockett immediately called his friends in California, waking them with the news.

With Brett leading the way, the three young men apparently went in search of "a hot tub the size of a small room," Osburn said. They probably took the wrong set of steps leading to the hot springs and instead, two of the hikers stepped off a ledge and fell into the river at the bottom of the gorge.

Authorities theorize that Brett Crawford struck his head on a rock, was knocked unconscious and was swept downstream. His companion, Bobby Michelian, a student at USC, suffered a broken ankle and a fractured skull. The third young man, Greg Porter, 22, another USC student from Vista, Calif., ran for help, Dona Crawford said.

"Brett was a very rugged kid, he was an environmental biology major who knows the forest," Dona Crawford said. "We thought he was still alive. But the thought of what he could be going through for four days, I'd rather someone put me through a torture chamber."

The emotional roller coaster ended when Gordon Crawford, a senior vice president at Capital Research Co., concluded after three days of searching that his son could not have survived the fall.

"There was a swing that went from hope to despair," Osburn said. "Gordie went from needing to search for his son to needing to be with his wife and his other son."

Crawford and Osburn returned home to be with Dona Crawford and Brett's brother, Jeffrey, 25, who works for the Atlanta Braves. The missing man's passport was found at the base of the gorge, his sweat shirt was located about 250 yards downstream and his backpack, about three miles farther in the 12-mile-long gorge, Osburn said. The search for Brett's body continues while the Crawford family comes to grips with their loss.

"I know he's gone," his mother said. "I have strong faith and I know I'll be with him again. But the hardest part is not being able to touch him now."

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