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Rescuers Improvise to Free Boy, 11, From Rocks

Emergency: Team works three hours as Lake Los Angeles youth slips deeper into crevice. Using corn oil for lubrication, they pull him out.


When rescuers arrived, the 11-year-old boy was already jammed eight feet down the narrow crack in the rock and slipping lower each time he exhaled, sinking toward the point where the unyielding rock walls squeezing his chest would kill him.

A Los Angeles County Fire Department team, which had pulled victims from collapsed buildings in the Northridge earthquake and searched for survivors of the Oklahoma City bombing, faced the perplexing problem under a blistering Mojave Desert sun Tuesday and came up with the answer:

Timbers, leather straps and cooking oil.

More than a gallon of cooking oil.

The Urban Search and Rescue Team jammed timbers beneath the boy's feet in a three-hour rescue operation in 97-degree heat, then drenched him with corn oil until he was greasy enough to slide out.

"It was really hot in there. . . . I wanted to get out," said Paul Hartness of Lake Los Angeles after he was pulled from the foot-wide crack in a pile of desert boulders, which narrowed to just a few inches where his feet were lodged.

He had gone up on the rocks on a challenge, he said, while playing with two friends, brothers Rodney Kunkel, 11, and Travis Kunkel, 9, who live near the outcropping northwest of Lake Los Angeles, called Rainbow Peak in the neighborhood.

"I told [Rodney], if you go up, I'll go up," Paul said. While trying to climb down again, he caught his foot and slipped into the crevice, he said.

The Kunkel brothers ran to their mother's house and called Hartness' aunt, Annie Houtz, who is also a neighbor. Scrambling up the outcropping, Houtz found Paul wedged well down in the crack, his face and body pressed hard against the sheer rock walls. Houtz called 911.

At 12:21, firefighters responded from a local station.

An hour later the search-and-rescue specialists arrived, called in from a drill in Hawthorne.

Those first on the scene tried using webbing straps dropped around the boy's chest and ropes to simply pull him to the surface. But he was wedged in too tightly. "It hurt him too much and they had to stop," said county Fire Capt. Ron Roy of the Urban Search and Rescue Team.

But with each breath, the boy slipped a fraction of an inch farther, slowly ratcheting into the crevice, with the crack continuing to narrow for 10 feet beneath him.

"Every time he would breathe, he would start to shift," county Fire Inspector Henry Rodriguez said. "We were afraid if he went down too far, he wouldn't be able to breathe" from the pressure of the crevice walls against his chest.

But rescuers could get at the crack from one side. Balancing on boulders beside the crack, they managed to jam 2-by-10 timbers beneath his feet.

Others dropped padded leather straps for Paul to loop around his wrists. "Hang on to these as tight as you can," they told him, according to Roy, who said he has a son about Paul's age.

Throughout the long, hot afternoon, rescuers and friends urged the boy to remain calm, talking to him about baseball, his favorite sport. Although his feet and legs became numb, Houtz said, he remained fairly calm, swigging from the bottles of water firefighters lowered to him.

"He's a tough little guy. He told us how he felt and how to improve his position," Fire Capt. Tom Jones said.

The boy had to be made slippery enough to overcome the fiction of the rock face. But how?

"We were thinking maybe some kind of soap to make it slick," Roy said. "Then we thought, oil . . . cooking oil."

Houtz called the Lake Los Angeles Dairy store where she works, and a friend rushed over a case of about 10 pint bottles of Springfield cooking oil, made from corn. Firefighters raced in with cooking oil from the kitchens of the nearest fire station.

By the quart, they sloshed the oil over the trapped boy and patiently waited for it to flow around him.

"It took a couple jerks to free him. He was wedged in there tight," Jones said. His jeans slipped down, and "as soon as his bare behind hit the oil on the granite he came out."

Rescue workers said the youth was so dehydrated that all he could say, over and over, was that he wanted to sleep, but he was strong enough to flash a "V" sign with his fingers at reporters as firefighters carried him off, his body still gleaming with cooking oil.

Released from the Antelope Valley Medical Center about 7 p.m. after a checkup, with only cuts and bruises from his ordeal, he told reporters: "I'm really, really happy. It was just really exhausting."

Of his rescuers, he added: "I thought they were heroes." His mother, Phyliss Hartness, learned of the widely televised rescue operation from a neighbor and arrived just before Paul was pulled out. "He was a little teary," she said. "And he was frightened when he was alone and the other kids went for help. He just sat there and prayed."

This story was written by Times staff writer Jill Leovy.

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