Two people who were lost for three nights in the San Jacinto Mountains were rescued after they stumbled across the campsite of a long-lost hiker and used his matches to start a signal fire.
Brandon Day, 28, and Gina Allen, 24, of Dallas said they found a backpack of supplies in the deserted campsite of John Donovan, a little more than a year after he vanished.
Donovan, 60, of Virginia might never come down from the mountain, but his matches "were what gave us the means to get out," Allen said in a telephone interview Wednesday, a day after the couple were rescued.
"Even in his death, he was helping people," Donovan's longtime friend, Chris Hook, of Richmond, Va., told the Riverside Press-Enterprise.
Day and Allen were visiting the desert east of Los Angeles for a financial convention. They got lost Saturday after wandering from a trail during a two-hour stop with other tourists who took the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway.
They weren't too worried at first because they could hear voices.
"I still felt we were relatively close: It's gonna be around this next turn, it's gonna be around this next boulder," Day said.
It wasn't. Prepared only for a brief hike, they wore light windbreakers and tennis shoes and had no food, spare clothing or cellphones.
With night closing in, they said, they took shelter in a small cave between boulders and spent the night sleepless, freezing and hungry.
In the morning, they struggled to follow a stream downhill through boulder-strewn terrain. That night, they said, they were frequently awakened by their own shivering.
But they kept going, with "the mantra from night one: 'We're going to get out of here. We're not going to die. It's not our time,' " Day said.
They said the third day was the worst for Allen, who was getting weaker and slowing down.
"The very worst thoughts went through our mind, that we might be stuck here. I prayed a lot," she said.
About 5 p.m. Monday, they said, they discovered a campsite in a dead-end gorge. There was a foam sleeping mat, a poncho thrown into some branches for shade, a backpack, disposable razor, spoon and tennis shoes.
Day and Allen were elated, thinking someone there could help them find the way out. But something was wrong. The gear was wet. A radio and flashlight were corroded.
They realized the place was deserted.
"I could just feel myself struck down," Allen said.
They found identification showing the camper was Donovan and learned later the retired social worker and experienced hiker had been trekking the Pacific Crest Trail before vanishing May 2, 2005, in icy weather.
His journal, in the form of notes written on sketch paper and on the back of maps, depicted a man without hope of rescue, Day said.
"His last journal entry was one year ago to the day that we found it, which was very eerie," Day said. "Nobody knew where he was, nobody knew to come looking for him, so he was preparing for the end. We were looking at the words of a man who was passing."
They found salvation in his backpack -- a warm sweater for Allen, dry socks for Day -- and the matches.
They said they lit a small signal fire and spotted a helicopter in the distance. The crew didn't see them.
The next morning they came to a large culvert choked with dried-out vines and other foliage. Day struck another match.
"The whole acre or two caught fire, created a really big smoke signal" that finally alerted a helicopter crew, he said.
They were examined at a hospital and had only blisters and bruises. "We feel great. We're thankful. We feel like we've been given a second chance," Day said by telephone from his Palm Desert hotel room.
Authorities, meanwhile, planned to search the area over the weekend for signs of Donovan.
Day wants Donovan's relatives to know something.
"His demise did lead to saving the lives of two other people," he said. "With tragedy comes rebirth. We have a real special thanks for that person."