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Girl Survives 10 Days After Crash Killed Mom

Child is found with woman's body and car near bottom of canyon

April 14, 2004|Lance Pugmire and Louis Sahagun | Times Staff Writers

A 6-year-old girl -- who survived an automobile accident that killed her mother, then subsisted for 10 days on dry noodles and juice -- was discovered Tuesday in the wreckage at the bottom of a rocky canyon east of Riverside by state highway workers.

Ruby Bustamante and her 26-year-old mother, Norma Bustamante, had last been seen in a Ford Taurus on April 4 in Indio, where they lived. Relatives reported them missing a day later.

Authorities believe the car skidded off a westbound lane of the 60 Freeway and plunged 300 feet down a cliff before slamming into a large tree in a region known as the badlands -- 260 square miles of parched, buckled earth and myriad box canyons.

Bustamante's body was found a few feet from the wreckage, and she is believed to have died shortly after the crash, authorities said. Relatives say the little girl with long, dark hair and big, brown eyes waited beside her, surviving on Top Ramen and Gatorade.

"The angels kept her alive. What else could you possibly say?" said Cathy Cooney, Bustamante's sister. "[Norma] was watching over her too. She probably took a bag of goodies along for the long car ride because that's the type of mom she is, caring, and always thinking about her kids first."

Ruby was subdued and thirsty after she was carried to safety on Tuesday morning.

"She didn't say much beyond 'I want some water,' " said Gerry Magnuson, a lead California Department of Transportation worker who helped rescue her. "But she was cute as a bug's ear. I think it's a miracle she survived. She's a brave soul."

Ruby was taken to Riverside County Regional Medical Center in Moreno Valley, where she was reported to be dehydrated but in "good condition," according to Riverside County Sheriff's Department spokeswoman Shelley Kennedy-Smith.

Ruby's ordeal ended Tuesday at 8:45 a.m., when Magnuson and others noticed the rear of a car in the canyon while they were repairing a broken guard rail along the highway that winds through the mountainous terrain between Moreno Valley and Banning. Crew members had no idea the guardrail they were working on was damaged by the car below.

"A contract employee saw movement in that car and headed down the mountain," Magnuson said. "I went back to the truck and called California Highway Patrol."

A few minutes later, he said, the crew member "came out from behind the tree with the little girl."

"We sat her in a truck," he said. "She looked dehydrated, and her hair was somewhat matted. We gave her water and a cup of lime Jell-O."

Her mother's body, which had decomposed, was found nearby. The Riverside County coroner's office will perform an autopsy to determine the cause of death.

The two were reported missing at 2 p.m. April 5 by Bustamante's mother, Rosemary Morin, and Cooney, who told police the mother and daughter were last seen in a 1998 Taurus headed to Norwalk.

Sgt. Richard Banasiak of the Indio Police Department said relatives posted fliers around Indio and the Coachella Valley. The police entered the mother and daughter in a national computer database for missing persons.

At the hospital, some relatives angrily accused authorities of not acting soon enough.

"Usually when someone is missing, and when they tell them there is a baby involved, they jump right on it," Cooney said. "But these officers didn't get involved."

Banasiak said they did everything they could.

"Unfortunately, for those who know this area, you can have an accident in these areas where there are cliffs, and it can be difficult to see anything," he said.

It is believed that before the mother died, she moved herself a few feet from the wreckage of the car, which had plowed through the guardrail, leaving it bent and broken.

At a news conference in the hospital, Ruby's great-grandfather, Bill Cooney; her great-grandmother, Willie Lee Henderson Cooney; and her aunt Judy Cortina tearfully expressed relief at the rescue of the girl, who they said was doing remarkably well.

"She doesn't remember much," Bill Cooney said. "She was just laying there with her mom."

Relatives at the hospital and in Indio were devastated by the death of Bustamante, the mother of six children ranging in age from 8 months to 8 years, but jubilant that Ruby survived.

"The fact that they had food and drink in that car was incredible," sheriff's spokeswoman Kennedy-Smith said. "Obviously, it saved the child's life."

Mike Leum, chief of search and rescue for Los Angeles County, said: "The car probably acted as some kind of shelter for her. Dehydration is probably the next-biggest pressing issue."

The Gatorade sports drink, which is rich in electrolytes and salts and designed to combat dehydration, may well have been the lifesaver for Ruby, Leum said.

"I'm amazed she could open the top" of the Gatorade bottle, he said. "That's not easy" for a 6-year-old.

Nighttime temperatures dropped to a chilly 47 degrees.

Bustamante was headed to visit her boyfriend, Eduardo Garcia, who is in a Los Angeles County jail, relatives said. Mother and daughter were reported missing after they failed to return home or answer repeated phone calls.

"We thought she had been in an accident. We knew it had been raining that morning. We called the police, put up fliers everywhere, and told the news," said Jacob Rodriguez, Bustamante's cousin. He described her as "a great mother and great person," who gave up working as a Home Depot cashier to be home with her six children -- four girls and two boys.

Lorraine Morin, Bustamante's 21-year-old sister, said relatives intended to shower Ruby with comfort and love, hoping to help her cope with witnessing her mother's death.

"I don't know exactly what we'll say, except to say, it's OK, we love her, and to continue talking to her," she said. "Ruby is a beautiful, loving kid."

Times staff writers Sandra Murillo and Janet Wilson contributed to this report.

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