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San Gabriel Valley / COVER STORY : REAL LIFE CLIFFHANGERS : Tragedy Can Be Just a Step Away for Those Who Enter the Angeles National Forest Unprepared for Its Deadly Variety of Natural Hazards.

October 06, 1994|KEVIN UHRICH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Rick Perez was a standout college baseball player more at home on a baseball field than on a hiking trail.

The 20-year-old El Monte resident was on a rare tramp July 2 through the Angeles National Forest, on his way with friends to go swimming in Santa Anita Canyon. He stepped off the trail to take a shortcut, lost his footing and tumbled 75 feet down the steep, rocky incline into the canyon.

Perez was one of six people killed accidentally since January among the rocky canyons of the 655,000-acre forest northeast of Los Angeles. During that time, the Angeles also was the site of 17 nonfatal falls; 18 incidents of people getting stuck on cliffs; seven mountain bike accidents; 76 motorcycle accidents; scores of incidents of people driving cars, motorcycles and recreational vehicles under the influence of alcohol--and sometimes off cliffs--and 44 reports of overdue friends and relatives, most of whom eventually turned up alive and well.

"People like to think of the forest as their back yard. I don't think they realize sometimes that their back yard has ticks and rattlesnakes and uneven ground that you can't hike on in thongs," said U.S. Forestry Service spokeswoman Randi Jorgensen.

Its proximity to a vast urban area can make the Angeles appear to be just

another version of Frontierland or a scenic neighborhood park, rangers say. As a result, it draws many inexperienced hikers or people who don't take its wild and rugged nature seriously.

In comparison with other disasters and near disasters in the forest, Perez's story is not all that unusual. Many people who go into the forest for an afternoon or once-in-awhile weekend outings don't know what they're getting into, forest officials and county rescuers say.

A typical scenario goes something like this: A person or group decides to get away and goes into the mountains for a day of hiking, biking or skiing. At first, there are plenty of other people around and there doesn't seem to be much chance of getting lost or hurt. But as time passes, they move farther into the wilderness and farther from other hikers. The sun and the temperature start going down. The terrain becomes a little less familiar, a little more dangerous. By this time it begins to sink in that they're lost. And they can't find the right trail to get out.

Such was the case with three Southern California Edison Co. contract workers from Burbank who in May, 1993, entered the forest at Big Tujunga Canyon to clear brush away from power lines near Suicide Canyon, known for its scenic waterfalls and steep cliffs.

By the time they were finished working, the sun had set and the three men found themselves standing on a cliff, clueless as to how to backtrack out of the wilderness. They were all wearing short-sleeved shirts and jeans, inadequate clothing for a night or longer in the mountains. They had no food or water with them. Luckily, a sheriff's helicopter spotted them the next day.

A similar rescue occurred just this week. Justin Van Hecke, 20, of Diamond Bar didn't know much about hiking in the wilderness when he and two friends from Wrightwood set out Sunday morning for an overnight camping trip to Pine Mountain, just south of the vast San Gabriel Wilderness. When Van Hecke separated from his companions in thick, 12-foot-high brush, he became hopelessly lost. His friends had given up the search and spent the rest of that day walking out of the woods to the nearest ranger station for help.

Van Hecke might not have known much about camping, but he did know enough to stay put, said Sheriff's Deputy David Smail. In a few hours, Van Hecke was spotted from the air and lifted to safety by a sheriff's rescue helicopter. He was treated for scratches and abrasions at Foothill Presbyterian Hospital and released.

"He just stayed there," Smail said. "That's what kept him alive."

Not all unprepared hikers are so lucky. In late 1992, Jeremy Sullivan, a senior varsity football player at Katella High School in Anaheim, was hiking with four friends near the East Fork Ranger's Station, just north of Glendora Ridge, near La Verne. His father says Sullivan, 18, was an inexperienced camper. While walking along a trail, the teen-ager slipped, dropped 40 feet off a mountain trail and died.

Possibly the most famous cliffhanger in the forest in the past two years involved 23-year-old Christopher Simon, nephew of movie director Steve Spielberg through his wife, actress Kate Capshaw. In this case, Spielberg personally made sure the story had a happy ending.

In early July, 1992, Simon was on an outing at Strawberry Peak near Mt. Wilson. When Simon didn't return home, his roommate called the Sheriff's Department. After county rescuers were unable to find Simon, Spielberg hired two jet helicopters, at a cost of about $2,700, and Simon was found later that day, standing on a cliff.

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