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'He's Alive!'--Boy Survives 6-Day Ordeal

February 14, 1998|TOM GORMAN and JOE MOZINGO | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WRIGHTWOOD, Calif. — Astounding even the most hopeful of his rescuers, a 14-year-old snowboarder missing since last weekend was found alive and in good condition Friday afternoon in a remote area of the San Gabriel Mountains near here.

Jeff Thornton, first reported missing last Saturday, was airlifted by a sheriff's helicopter to a Glendora hospital after surviving six nights of subfreezing temperatures, nearly 3 feet of snowfall and winds whipping up to 70 mph at elevations above 5,600 feet.

"I'm not sure if ever there was a more amazing rescue than this one," said Jon Inskeep, radio point man for the Sierra Madre Search and Rescue Team operation who first heard about Thornton's good fortune when one of the volunteer searchers shouted over the radio, "He's alive!"

Members of the team found the 5-foot-9, 215-pound ninth-grader from the Imperial Valley town of Brawley at the bottom of a treeless ravine about two miles south of the New Mountain High ski resort, where he was last seen snowboarding with an uncle, Marc Shapiro, last Saturday.

Rescuers were astonished not only that the boy was alive, but also that he appeared to be in relatively good condition, considering the ordeal.

"We saw him sitting on the bank of the creek, and he was just as surprised to see us as we were to see him," said Randy Katai, the first volunteer to reach the teenager. "He didn't believe we were real."

"It's great!" shouted Thornton's stepfather, Billy Manness, as he ran into Foothill Presbyterian Hospital.

The teenager was disoriented, bruised, had a black eye and complained of abdominal pains, rescuers said. Missing one of his snowboarding boots, Thornton apparently walked for six days down a canyon, which was intermittently covered with mud and snow. He got water from a creek.

"The kid was hungry and thirsty," said Inskeep, operations director of Friday's rescue squad, which was composed of sheriff's deputies and members of the Sierra Madre team.

Thornton was taken by helicopter to the hospital, where officials said he showed no signs of severe exposure or hypothermia but was nonetheless placed in intensive care.

"He came in alert and talking, with good vital signs and temperature [93.4 degrees] well above what we expected," said John Dimare, the hospital's medical director.

A spokesman for the ski resort said the rescue came just in time. Ten minutes after Thornton was discovered, fog rolled into the area, a precursor to yet another storm.

"It's kind of ironic," said John McColly, New Mountain High's marketing and public relations manager. "They found him just before the clouds came in.

News that the teenager had beaten the odds sent shivers of thankfulness and joy through family and friends in his hometown near the Salton Sea. His mother, Lori, immediately left for the hospital.

"We're absolutely ecstatic," said Dorothy Graham, who answered the telephone at the family home.

"We feel very blessed that he's been found," she said. "We put our faith in the Lord. We did nothing but pray. This whole community came together. Without that kind of support, I'm not sure we would have made it through."

Describing herself as Lori Thornton's best friend, Graham said she accompanied the distraught mother to the mountains near Wrightwood last weekend when word first came that Jeff was missing.

"It was very difficult to see her go through what she went through," Graham said.

"Apparently, he has a few scratches. He's exhausted. And of course he's hungry. He's a teenage boy--he's hungry."

Thornton was reported missing after he and Shapiro went snowboarding along the top ridge west of the resort. McColly said that the pair were "out of bounds"--beyond the course markers maintained by New Mountain High--but that Shapiro managed to find his way onto a ski run about 1 p.m. that day.

Thornton, however, apparently followed the fall line of the mountain, which carried him down and away from safety. The ski patrol was summoned but stopped searching about 6 p.m. because of the dark and the blizzard conditions, McColly said.

The storm dumped 2 feet of new snow on the area, and temperatures dived to 24 degrees that night.

"The winds were howling, there was a whiteout and we could only see 5 or 10 feet," said Darrel Airhart, a Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy and paramedic. "That really hampered our rescue effort. We were concerned about an avalanche.

"We always hold hope to find the person alive," he said. "But even after the first night, we were worried we would only find his body--we would see a person sticking out of the snow."

A second storm Sunday dumped another 10 inches of snow.

Although others searched for Thornton, the Sierra Madre team did not go out Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday because it de @pends on volunteers, Inskeep said.

"We felt his chances of surviving were so slim we did not want to risk our rescuers in a search for somebody who may not be found alive," he said.

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