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Missing hikers found: Dramatic rescue ended five-day ordeal

April 04, 2013|By Kate Mather, Rick Rojas and Irfan Khan
  • Helicopters were ready for deployment in the search for the missing hikers.
Helicopters were ready for deployment in the search for the missing hikers. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles…)

In the search for a teenage hiker lost in Orange County’s backcountry, things were beginning to look grim.

It had been five days since she went missing. The terrain, steep ravines with 10-foot-high brush, hindered rescue efforts and thwarted helicopters armed with infrared cameras. When searchers found her companion, dehydrated and exhausted, he said they’d become separated and he hadn’t seen her recently.

But on Thursday, Kyndall Jack’s voice secured her rescue. The 18-year-old’s frantic screams from a cliff in the Trabuco Canyon area caught the attention of a search team and led to a protracted and dramatic rescue.

PHOTOS: The search for missing hikers

“I yelled out to her to see if she could see me,” said rescuer Mike Leum. “She said she could see me, but I could not see her.”

Leum shouted at her to wave her arms. She could only wave one, she told told him. The other was hurt.

Leum kept his eyes on the teen as he directed a helicopter to hoist her off rocky outcrop where she was stranded.  

“She was severely dehydrated,” he said. “She was confused – she didn’t really know much of anything.”

Jack, a college student from Costa Mesa, was airlifted to UCI Medical Center, where a spokesman said she was being treated for dehydration and hypothermia and undergoing tests. Her family “would like to thank every one for their help, and to thank them for keeping her in their thoughts and prayers,” a hospital spokesperson said.

Her friend and hiking companion, Nicolas Cendoya, 19, rescued Wednesday night, remained hospitalized for dehydration and superficial cuts.

Though officials said they were thrilled with the happy ending, they used the opportunity to remind the public of the hazards that inexperienced and unprepared hikers pose to themselves and rescuers.

That danger was driven home in the final rescue push when a reserve sheriff’s deputy plunged 60 feet down a hillside while trying to reach Jack. The volunteer deputy, who was not identified, sustained a serious head injury and was being treated in the intensive care unit, officials said. His injuries were not considered life-threatening, they said.

The massive search operation which began Sunday night grew to include 16  state and local agencies. Asked for the cost of the search, Orange County Sheriff’s Lt. Jason Park said he didn’t know, “but it’s a good question.”

He stopped short of blaming Cendoya and Jack.

“We don't know what they came out there to do,” Park said. “We're not in a position to point fingers.”

Jack and Cendoya, friends from Costa Mesa High School, set out for their hike Easter Sunday. Both were accomplished athletes who regularly worked out together at a local gym, but according to one friend, they were not experienced hikers. They took no food, did not inform friends of their route and Cendoya was dressed in board shorts and a T-shirt.

After embarking on a popular trail leading to a waterfall, they apparently strayed from the path and quickly became lost in the rugged terrain and thorny chaparral. As night fell, Cendoya used the remaining power on his dying cellphone to call 911.

“He was panting and said, ‘We’re out of water,’” Orange County Fire Authority Capt. Jon Muir said. Cendoya estimated that he and Jack were about a mile from their car in Holy Jim Canyon. The distance proved right, but the location he gave the operator was “totally” wrong, Muir said.

After four days searching by helicopter, foot, horseback and bloodhound, hikers spotted Cendoya just before 8 p.m. Wednesday wedged in a V-shaped ridge high off a creek bed, buffeted by thick brush. He was 500 feet from a busy roadway, but disoriented from extreme dehydration, authorities said. He had lost his shoes and had cuts and scratches on his feet and body.

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kate.mather@latimes.com

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