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Helicopter rescue

Couple found by chopper after being stranded in Castaic hills for two days

Posted: August 29, 2012 2:00 a.m.
Updated: August 29, 2012 2:00 a.m.

A helicopter piloted by Jason Hassler lands near the stranded Richard and Joyce Larson on Monday in Castaic.

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When David Larson got a call from his mother Sunday night, it was like no other message he had ever received.

“We’re OK,” she told him. “They’re going to airlift us out of here but we’re all right.”

It wasn’t until he caught up with his aging parents later at a hospital that he learned of their overnight ordeal, stranded on a hilltop without water and with little food south of Castaic Lake.

Hospital staff told him they were lucky to be alive.

They were right.

Morning errands

Saturday morning was like any other morning for Joyce and Richard Larson of Saugus.

They had some errands to run — routine trips for prescription medication that took them to a couple of different pharmacies.

The plan was to be back home in time for lunch. But they wouldn’t see their home again until they were released from the hospital Monday.

“We’re tired and we’re sunburned, but you don’t know how grateful I am,” Joyce Larson said Tuesday, recalling the day that could have been their last, according to the doctors and nurses who treated them.

On that Saturday, Joyce Larson said, “I went to Wal-Mart to get another medication for my high blood pressure.”

By chance, she passed the store’s produce aisle.

“I thought, ‘I’m going to get some fruit.’ So I bought some grapes, some bananas and tomatoes. They just looked so good.

“Then we were going to go home.”

When they left the store, they drove west on Newhall Ranch Road. But the route took them to Interstate 5. Scrambling to get off the freeway and return the way they came — “The freeway scares me to death,” Joyce Larson said — the couple found themselves on a winding road leading east from the interstate along miles or rolling Castaic hills, Richard Larson at the wheel of their car.

“We took a road going up somewhere,” Joyce Larson said. “Then my husband said, ‘I’ll just take this (dirt) road.

“It’ll be a shortcut.’”

It wasn’t.

“We met a man on that road who said ‘Don’t go down there. There’s men shooting there.’”

The Larsons later realized the stranger was referring to a paintball park east of the interstate.

“Then a man on a bike told us, ‘You’re going the wrong way.’”

The cyclist gave directions back to the main road but “somehow we missed the turn-off to go back down,” she said.

The Larsons’ white 10-year-old Nissan Sentra climbed higher into the hills on a rugged, isolated dirt road, then became stuck in the sand.

The couple spun the wheels so hard trying to get out that one of the tires blew.

By then it was mid-afternoon and close to 100 degrees.

Dehydration

The couple, both diabetic, realized quickly they had no water in their car.

“There was no one around, no people, no homes, nothing,” Joyce said.

“I was worried about my husband,” she said. “He’s not well.

“I thought ‘What if he dies and I’m stuck up here? What am I going to do?’”

Joyce and her husband stayed in the car out of the sun but were still dehydrating quickly.

“We didn’t have any water,” she said. “We spent all Saturday up there on the hill. We had some grapes so we just sort of sucked the juice out of the grapes and the tomatoes.”

The couple decided to consume only a little at a time, fearing the worst.

The sun set and temperatures dropped, Joyce said.

“It was a full moon. I didn’t sleep. He dozed off a few times but I couldn’t sleep,” she said.

Joyce learned that night first-hand just how many wild animals call the Santa Clarita Valley their home. She said she saw coyotes and rabbits, but she also saw a bear.

As the sun rose Sunday morning, the beginning of another long hot day, Joyce said she prayed.

“I prayed all day that someone would come and find us,” she said.

Joyce said she tried unsuccessfully to get the attention of helicopters.

“A few went by but they didn’t see me.”

Joyce even scrawled SOS in lipstick on the roof of the car.

Then she popped the car’s trunk and found a red hat. And she prayed again.

“I just said, “Please, Lord, help us.’ and I looked up and there was a helicopter.”

Joyce said she ran out onto the hill, hat in hand.

“I was waving my arms, holding this red hat,” she said. “The pilot went away a little bit but turned ... that’s when he (the pilot) landed. I told him that my husband couldn’t walk.”

Air Rescue

The helicopter pilot, Jason Hassler, of Valencia, contacted the Los Angeles County Fire Department which, in turn, dispatched a chopper with four paramedics who airlifted the couple to safety, Joyce said.

The couple were found in a remote area off of Charlie Canyon Road.

They were taken to Henry Mayo Newhall Memorial Hospital and treated for dehyrdration.

Joyce, her husband and her son, say pilot Hassler — who was out that day instructing a student how to fly — saved their lives.

“It is not often we recognize people who go out of their way, but he deserves the recognition,” David Larson said. “He had enough courage to think that something did not seem right there, so he turned around the copter.”

Joyce and Richard Larson owe their lives to Hassler.

But they also credit the small amount of fruit Joyce picked up on a whim with having prevented them going into diabetic shock and to a red hat found in the trunk.

But, for Joyce Larson, the answer is simple.

“I know in my heart there’s a God,” she said.

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