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Brush Fire Leads Rescuers to Man Trapped in Minivan

He says he was there three days after landing in a deep gorge. He might have set the blaze.

August 22, 2003|Olga R. Rodriguez | Times Staff Writer

Smoke rising from a gorge along Angeles Crest Highway on Thursday led emergency crews to a man who said he had been trapped in a crumpled minivan for three days after it plummeted down a 500-foot embankment.

Apparently thinking he would never be discovered at the bottom of the deep, forested gorge, 45-year-old Jong S. Choi of Los Angeles is believed to have started the fire to signal for help.

As more than 100 firefighters battled the blaze in El Nino Canyon, just north of La Canada Flintridge, a helicopter lifted a battered and tearful Choi from the site.

A spokeswoman for Huntington Memorial Hospital, where Choi was airlifted and treated for cuts, dehydration and chest pains, said paramedics had told her that he had been "able to crawl out of the van and start a fire. He's a little sketchy about the details, but he did tell paramedics that he started the fire," Connie Matthews said.

A passerby called 911 just before 8 a.m. after spotting the flames and reporting that a vehicle was nearby at the bottom of the ravine. Fire crews found Choi standing yards away from his Astro Van in distress.

"He broke into tears; he was very emotional," said Los Angeles County firefighter Jeff Ziegler. The fireman said he had been surprised to hear Choi say he had been there since Monday, but rescue crews noted that Choi's cuts and bruises appeared to be several days old.

Choi, an immigrant from South Korea, speaks limited English and couldn't fully describe to his rescuers what had led to the accident. Firefighters and CHP officers said Choi had insisted he had been trapped since Monday. The forest green van was partially concealed by a stand of live oaks and thick chaparral.

It is not uncommon for cars to go undiscovered if they are driven off Angeles Crest Highway and into the forest, which often is used as a dumping site for stolen vehicles, said U.S. Forest Service spokesman Stanton Florea.

"We weren't surprised to hear there was a vehicle," he said.

Florea said that his agency was not sure that Choi had set the blaze, but said that it hoped to determine that soon.

"Whether it was caused by the accident, by the victim or something else, we don't know," Florea said. "It would be a miraculous story, but at this point it would be a hypothetical."

Choi declined requests for interviews Thursday, but hospital officials said he was in good condition.

"He wants us to say that he's OK, which he is," Matthews said. "There's a happy ending to this one. He's relieved to be in good hands here, and he's a little bit groggy."

Emergency crews speculated that Choi had been driving south and might have struck the rock hillside, swerved across the opposite lane and rolled over a small berm separating the cliff from a turnout.

CHP Officer Vincent Bell interviewed Choi at the scene, but said he was still trying to piece together events of the case.

"We do know he went over the side," Bell said. "His statement to me is that it happened on Monday. He doesn't know how it happened. He remembers the accident, but he doesn't know what today's date is. He doesn't know where he was going."

None of Choi's relatives filed a missing-person report with authorities, Bell said. "Apparently if he was overdue, it wasn't an unexpected overdue."

Times staff writers Li Fellers, K. Connie Kang and Monte Morin contributed to this report.

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