A father and three children who vanished on a Christmas tree-cutting trip in the Northern California mountains were found alive Wednesday 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 delivered the family to safety, the two youngest children brought out of the woods first. The father smiled at family and friends, who cheered as he and his 18-year-old son emerged from their helicopter.
The two younger children, ages 14 and 12, stepped out of the chopper Wednesday afternoon and were immediately enveloped in a cluster of well-wishers carrying heavy blankets.
Stahl closed his business so he and his employees could assist in the search. The four family members suffered mild to moderate hypothermia and were being taken to a hospital but were otherwise fine, he said.
The four apparently survived by huddling in a culvert, CHP officer Joe Hagerty said.
CHP pilot Steve Ward and flight officer David White found the family after spotting the word "help" stomped in the snow, Hagerty said. The helicopter was able to join the search midday on Wednesday after low-lying clouds lifted.
Race against time, elements
Searchers had hoped the family had found one of the many cabins or caves that dotted the heavily wooded and canyon-crossed area.
More than a foot of snow has fallen in the area since the family disappeared, and drifts ranged from 1 to 7 feet deep across the heavily wooded and canyon-crossed area.
And a powerful storm carrying even more snow was bearing down on the region.
Dominguez, 38, and his children — Christopher, 18, Alexis, 14, and Joshua, 12 — had been missing since Sunday in the region about 100 miles north of Sacramento. Dominguez's pickup truck was found Monday night parked along a mountain road some 25 miles northeast of Chico.
The family also appeared better equipped than rescuers initially thought. Earlier reports said the family went into the woods to cut a Christmas tree wearing T-shirts and light jackets, but all four were wearing heavy winter coats when they emerged from the helicopters, and some had wool caps.
"We're all extremely thankful and feel like we got a Christmas miracle," said Teresa Kennebeck, a secretary at Paradise High School, where Alexis is on the cheerleader squad and soccer team.
A family man
Dominguez's co-workers said he 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.
"He lives for his family," said Mairleen Grove, the pest company's office manager. "When he walks in the door, he makes everybody smile."
Authorities believe Dominguez and the children went to church Sunday before leaving for the mountains.
He parked his Chevrolet pickup along a road near the mountain hamlet of Inskip on Sunday afternoon, then likely walked downhill into the woods with his children and became lost, Butte County Search and Rescue spokeswoman Madde Watt said.
"You could get turned around very quickly," she said.
It was clear at the time and for hours after the family entered the woods. 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.
They quickly found the pickup — a bare spot beneath it, indicating little snow when the trek began — but at least 8 inches of snow was covering the ground, hurting efforts to track them.
Expanded search effort
The search effort expanded significantly Wednesday morning, as snow had stopped falling for the first time since the family went missing.
It intensified as another moisture-laden Pacific storm was heading toward California, expected to blanket most of the northern state with rain and snow by late Wednesday afternoon.
About 2 feet of snow had been expected to fall Wednesday night and Thursday morning in the area where the family had been missing, said Jared Leighton, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service office in Sacramento.