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UPDATED: Missing man found by family north of Castaic after crash

Adds information from press conference at Henry Mayo

Posted: September 30, 2011 3:07 p.m.
Updated: September 30, 2011 8:58 p.m.

Los Angeles County firefighters wait for coroner's officials on Lake Hughes Road, where two vehicles were found off the side and about 200 feet down in the canyon below in the Angeles National Forest, north of Castaic on Thursday.

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A 67-year-old Lake Hughes man whose car ran off a winding mountain road survived for six days at the bottom of a ravine, eating bugs and leaves and drinking from a stream until his family discovered him.

And the main thought that occupied David Lavau when he arrived at Henry Mayo Newhall Memorial Hospital was a lobster taco, his doctor said during a news conference Friday.

“He said he was quite scared, but quite hopeful,” said Dr. Garrett Sutter, emergency room physician at the Santa Clarita Valley hospital. “And he was very desirous of having a lobster taco.”

Lavau was rescued Thursday night after his children hired a private investigator to help find him and then retraced his route along Lake Hughes Road between Castaic and his hometown.

He suffered multiple broken bones when his blue Toyota Corolla left Lake Hughes Road two miles west of Warm Springs Road — half way between Castaic Lake and Lake Hughes — and plunged down a 200-foot-deep ravine so steep it forced harness-fitted firefighters to repel into it.

Lavau’s car remained right-side-up landing almost bumper to bumper to a silver-colored Toyota Camry that crashed at nearly the exact same spot just days prior.

The registered owner of the ill-fated car has been identified by an officer of the Los Angeles Police Department as 88-year-old Melvin Gelfand, reported missing by his family Sept. 14.

The body found in the car could not be visually identified due to decomposition, but Gelfand’s son-in-law Will Matlack said the family had been contacted by the coroner’s office, which was trying to match fingerprints or dental records to make a positive identification.

“The coroner said it’s 99 percent a sure thing,” Matlack said.

Shortly after noon Friday, firefighters with the Los Angeles County Fire Department used a heavy crane to pull both crumpled cars out of the ravine, shutting down traffic on Lake Hughes Road.

The body believed to be that of Gelfand — found in the driver’s seat still in his seatbelt — was transferred to a waiting vehicle of the Los Angeles County Department of Coroner.

Firefighters reported finding a trunk full of groceries in the car belonging to the dead man.

Survival story
On Friday, Lavau told trauma surgeon Dr. Ranbir Singh how he survived.

“He told he stayed in the car for the whole night, the first night, and just moved to the passenger side and stayed there the whole night then got out of car in the morning and started to look around.”

That was David Lavau’s routine for almost a week in the wilderness.

“He said he mentally said ‘Goodbye’ to his family,” Singh said.

“He said he saw (the other) car next morning when got out of his car; he saw there was another car disabled and saw there was a body.”

Lavau said just before his car went over the cliff he was blinded by oncoming headlights.

“He looks very good,” said Singh. “We gave him some water, and he said it tastes like champagne.”

Local heroes
To residents of the rural town of Lake Hughes, north of the Santa Clarita Valley, the local man’s family members are heroes for never giving up looking for their loved one.

Wearing a black apron and walking into Papa’s Country Store — the town’s unofficial meeting spot — a man who gave his name only as Jeff had nothing but praise for the searchers.

He said he caught up with members of the jubilant Lavau clan and heard their stories.

“The family was shouting his name and he responded, and so though they were able to triangulate his position and go down there,” he said.

They went from ravine to ravine, calling out his name, he said.

At the ravine near Warm Spring Road, they heard a faint response of “Help, help.”

“What I think is triumphant is the fact that the family just went down the cliff. It’s 200 feet, not realizing they couldn’t even get back up — just so they could be at his side,” Jeff said.

“They said he had told them he was going to Oxnard, and this was six days prior — so they started to retrace and find the last place he used his credit card and everything,” he said.

Lavau’s family found him shortly after 6 p.m. Friday.

Not life-threatening
Chardonnay, Sean and Lisa Lavau appeared on NBC’s “Today” show Friday, describing how they found their father’s car and his makeshift camp off Lake Hughes Road in the Angeles National Forest.

Sutter said he was amazed that his patient is alive with no life-threatening injuries.

“He was in remarkably good condition when he first arrived,” Sutter said. “It’s astonishing he did as well as he has.

“When details of his story became apparent to me, I was actually shocked at how well he was doing and that he didn’t sustain as many injuries as I would have expected,” he said.

“He took quite a plummet off that cliff, and I’m not sure how he made it through.”

Lavau is scheduled to undergo surgery to repair a dislocated shoulder, which doctors had a difficult time re-setting, Sutter said.

The man’s condition was upgraded to stable from serious Friday.

Lavau suffered three broken ribs, a broken arm and other fractures.

When he arrived at Henry Mayo, he did not appear to be as dehydrated as Sutter first feared.

“He had access to water in the gorge, and he was pretty good about drinking fluids,” he said.

“He has an extraordinary will to live, (and) his family members were very supportive, very thankful to see him alive and feeling well,” Sutter said. “He wasn’t even confused. He gave a very detailed account of the events that transpired. For a person who has been out there for six days, under hazardous conditions, it was remarkable.”

Lavau is expected to be hospitalized three to four days.

Missing person
Family members apparently did not immediately realize their father was missing, and then contacted a missing persons detective in Los Angeles who helped them figure out that he had been gone for some time.

The detective narrowed the search area using cell phone towers, text messages and debit card purchases, Chardonnay Lavau told NBC and other organizations.

Lisa Lavau told KCAL-TV her family had not heard from her father for several days.

After narrowing the search area, “We stopped at every ravine and looked over every hill, and then my brother got out of the car and we kept screaming, and the next thing we heard Dad saying ‘Help, help,’ and there he was,” Lisa Lavau said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report




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