PARADISE, Calif. — Christmas tree search almost turned deadly.
Time was running out.
With another fierce winter storm heading toward the mountains of Butte County on Wednesday, the window of finding the Dominguez family was getting smaller by the minute.
And with the clouds growing thicker and the wind starting to pick up, officers in a California Highway Patrol helicopter made a stunning find on their final pass of the day:
A man jumping and waving frantically in the snow beside the word “HELP” written in twigs.
The desperate signal — found three days after Frederick Dominguez and his three children wandered into the wilderness in search of a Christmas tree — brought a massive rescue effort to a miraculous conclusion.
“When they turned around,” a jovial Dominguez would later say at a nearby hospital, “I was just praying to God, saying ‘Thank you, Lord. Thank you, Lord.'”
The helicopter’s pilot had been told not to fly Wednesday but took advantage of a brief break in the weather to make a 30-minute loop into the steep canyons that rescuers could not reach on foot.
Minutes after the helicopter landed on a small dirt road about 12:45 p.m. and scooped up Dominguez and his children — 18-year-old Christopher, 15-year-old Alexis and 12-year-old Joshua — the weather turned again. It wasn’t expected to ease up for two more days.
They carried no food or water, and Dominguez, 38, had no survival training for the three days and three nights they would spend in the elements. He hadn’t seen snow since he was 12.
Dominguez said the family took shelter in a damp concrete tunnel beneath the road where the helicopter landed, surviving temperatures that dipped into the 20s overnight.
Snow squalls dumped as much as 6 feet on the region since they walked away from their truck and into the woods at 5 p.m. Sunday.
They were found about four miles from where they had parked their truck.
The family sang songs during the days. But the nights — when an icy wind burst through their makeshift shelter — were miserable.
Dominguez, a native of Southern California who recently had moved to Butte County, said he’ll probably opt for an artificial Christmas tree next year.Freddy Dominguez and his three children were rescued by a helicopter north of Inskip in Butte County. The four family members spent three nights in the cold mountains.