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Sheriff's Helicopter Crew Finds Luckiest Man Alive- Guest Article

This article was submitted by Deputy/Pilot S. Bligh of the San Diego Sheriff's Department.  It originally appeared in the San Diego Deputy Sheriff's Association- Silver Star magazine. 


The canyon in San Diego's vast east county where this rescue took place, now referred to as "Lucky Bastard Canyon."

View From Above
ASTREA by Scott Bligh

The Luckiest Man Alive

This incident begins with the ASTREA fire/rescue helicopter fighting a brush fire in the eastern part of San Diego County near the Carrizo Wash.  While transitioning between the fire and their water source several miles away, the helicopter crew noticed something on the ground near the base of a palm tree.  Moving in for a closer look they first noticed a back pack and then noticed something similar in color to a fire fighter’s protective clothing, (possibly left behind from a previous fire fighting effort.)  Upon closer inspection, the protective clothing wasn’t clothing at all, but the remains of a human body.  There really wasn’t much left actually and it’s amazing the crew could even see it.  The scene was little reminiscent of the Pirates of the Caribbean only without the ocean.

This guy was obviously not the luckiest man alive but if not for him, the real luckiest man alive may not be alive today.  Read on.

As is always the case with a found body, a deputy assumes the death investigation, notifies the medical examiner investigator who comes out to look at the body and scene before it can be recovered.  It was too late in the day to round up all the players and get this done before dark so the decision was made to get the ball rolling early the next day.

The next morning, Medical Examiner Investigator Mark Malamatos arrived at ASTREA base, ready for his flight into the canyon where the body lay.  We found the canyon easy enough.  It was the one that was obviously charred from the previous day’s fire.  The GPS coordinates didn’t hurt either.  We then began the search for the grove of palms where the unlucky guy made his last stand.

We were flying down the canyon, later determined to be in the wrong direction, when Mark said, “I think there’s a guy down there who needs rescuing.”  I thought, “Great he found the body” and started to figure out a way to get us turned around in the narrow canyon.  Mark explained, “No, there’s a guy down there who’s still alive.”  Huh?

We slowly worked our way back up the canyon until coming to a bunch of tall reeds.  There wasn’t much wind in the canyon yet, but a few of those reeds were shaking like crazy.  We flew over the top of the wildly shaking reeds and there he was.  An international traveler flat on his back on the canyon floor shaking those reeds for all he was worth.  What are the odds?  A fire happens.  A helicopter crew arrives to put out the fire.  They just so happen to see a backpack.  A body happens to be next to the backpack.  A crew returns the next day with a medical examiner investigator and the helicopter crew searches for the body in the wrong location.  While searching in the wrong location, the medical examiner investigator looks out his window and sees wildly shaking reeds followed by a guy flat on his back.  Sweet Jesus, this guy needs to start playing the lottery.

So our “business as usual” body recovery via 100 foot cable and cargo net had turned into a rescue mission.

Step 1; kick out the M.E. Investigator-Mark at the bottom of the canyon and wish him well in the 100 degree heat with no shade.  We did, however, have the decency to leave Mark next to one of those water stations set up to assist the illegal immigrants in their quest to circumvent our immigration laws.  There was at least 20 gallons of store bought Borrego Springs drinking water there.  Good stuff.  I digress.

Step 2; drop Deputy Kaupe, hereafter referred to as Alan, on the canyon wall next to the “Lucky Guy.”  Alan determined Lucky was in no shape to make his way anywhere under his own power.  He had been flat on his back, where he lay, for the last 2 days, and had a barely detectable pulse of 166 beats per minute.  Lucky was running on fumes.  

Step 3; get Sheriff’s Copter 10, one of the Bell 205 fire rescue/helicopters, and the sheriff’s fuel truck heading this way for the only recourse, a hoist rescue.

After being an aerial communications relay between all involved and Alan, and noticing the rapidly building thunderstorms coming in from the south, I dropped in to check on Mark and let him know what was going on.  I may have also mentioned to him what I mentioned to Alan.  In case the heavens open up and releases a downpour upon us, start building your ark now.  Or at least move high up on the canyon walls to avoid the inevitable flash flooding.  On the bright side though, there was the non-stop lighting show in all directions which helped keep my mind off the flooding possibility.

Step 4; leave Alan, Mark and Lucky to fend for themselves and head for the McCain Fire Camp at the south end of McCain Valley off I-8 to meet with Copter 10 and prepare for the hoist rescue.  I briefed the hoist rescue with our Cal Fire brothers, who are trained to operate with us, and we made our way back to the canyon in the Bell 205.  Because Lucky was down for the count, we decided to hoist him in a basket as opposed to a harness for somebody who doesn’t resemble a wet noodle.  As soon as he was on board we again waved goodbye to Alan and Mark, wished them well with their arks, and made our way back to the McCain Fire Camp to pass Lucky off to waiting medical folks.

I’m not sure how well Lucky is doing but we did muster up the courage to fight the lightning storm and complete Step 5; the pick up of Alan and Mark.  They did not get washed away and we were not struck by lightning.  Life is good.

I think all involved agree, if the canyon had a name before that day, it has now been changed.  It will now be called “Lucky Bastard Canyon.”