PARADISE, Calif. -- A father and three children who vanished on a Christmas tree-cutting trip in the Northern California mountains were found alive yesterday after huddling in a culvert for warmth during three days of heavy snowstorms.
"Our hearts are all full right now," said Cory Stahl, who owns a pest control business where the father, Frederick Dominguez, works. "It's a very merry Christmas now."
A California Highway Patrol helicopter crew spotted Frederick Dominguez waving his arms atop a small bridge and landed nearby, sinking into 2 feet of snow, flight officer David White said. White said the crew found the family on their last pass over the area as snow from another storm, even bigger than the first, started to fall heavily.
The helicopter ferried the family to safety in two trips yesterday; Alexis, 15, and Joshua, 12, were taken out of the woods first. Dominguez, 38, smiled at cheering family and friends as he and 18-year-old Christopher emerged from the helicopter a short time later. They were immediately enveloped in a cluster of well-wishers carrying heavy blankets.
"I'm just amazed how well they did," Lisa Sams said after seeing her children and ex-husband for the first time since they were rescued. "It was like butterflies in my stomach, like if you were going to go on a very first date."
All four were talking and drinking hot chocolate while being checked at Feather River Hospital for dehydration, hypothermia and frostbite, treating physician Kurt Bower said. He expected them to be released later in the day.
"I'm surprised how good they are," he said. "There's a miracle from God in there somewhere." The family survived wearing only jeans, sweat shirts and coats and by huddling in a culvert beneath a bridge, sheltered from the outside by twigs and tree branches. They had written "help" in the snow with branches.
Stahl closed his business so he and his employees could assist in the search for the family.
The family - found less than a mile and a half from the road - said they got lost by going from pine tree to pine tree, trying to find the perfect Christmas tree, before realizing they were lost.
The skies were clear at the time they entered the woods Sunday and for hours afterward. The first storm wave didn't hit until Monday. Because Dominguez had custody of his children at the time, his ex-wife did not know they were missing until she discovered that her youngest child failed to show up at school Monday. Authorities were alerted at 8 p.m. Monday and immediately began a search.
Dominguez's pickup truck was found Monday night parked along a mountain road. The family also appeared better equipped than rescuers initially thought. All four were wearing heavy winter coats when they emerged from the helicopters, and some had wool caps.Co-workers said Dominguez is devoted to his children and takes them to church every Sunday, as he did this weekend before heading out in search of a Christmas tree.