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‘There's a miracle from God in there somewhere’

A California family hunting a Christmas tree is saved from cold and snow after three days lost in the mountains.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Lost for three days in the Northern California mountains, Frederick Dominguez and his three children wrote "Help" in the snow, huddled in a culvert for warmth, sang songs and prayed.

There seemed no way search crews would find them Wednesday.

On the ground, the closest rescuers were two miles away and didn't know exactly where to look for the family, which had gotten lost while looking for a Christmas tree. One snow-laden storm had covered the family's tracks, and an even bigger storm was hours away from burying them deeper.

The weather finally cleared enough to make air searches possible, but only briefly. A California Highway Patrol helicopter passed over the heavily wooded area, flying through a narrow canyon with cloud-covered mountain ridges on each side, but the crew saw nothing at first.

"We were on our last pass. That was it -- the weather was pushing us out," CHP pilot Steve Ward said.

Then they saw a man atop a small bridge, wildly waving his arms amid a wilderness of white and gray.

Snow from the incoming storm was falling when the helicopter set down in 2 feet of powder, plucked the family, wet and shivering, and whisked them to safety.

'Our hearts are all full'
"Our hearts are all full right now," said Cory Stahl, who closed his pest control business so his employees could help look for Dominguez, an employee. "It's a very merry Christmas now."

The helicopter ferried the Dominguez family to safety in two trips; Alexis, 15, and Joshua, 12, were taken out of the woods first. Their 38-year-old father smiled at cheering family and friends later as he and his 18-year-old son, Christopher, emerged from the aircraft.

The four were taken to Feather River Hospital in Paradise, where all were doing well, treating physician Kurt Bower said. They were released within hours.

"I'm surprised how good they are," he said. "There's a miracle from God in there somewhere."

Their ordeal began Sunday, when Dominguez and his children left church and headed to the mountains about 100 miles north of Sacramento to cut a tree for Christmas.

Because the father 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.

By the time authorities learned they were missing and began their search Monday night, the first storm had dumped 8 inches of snow around the family's parked pickup truck, obliterating their tracks. The family had been missing about 25 miles northeast of Chico, in the mostly rural north-central region of the state.

By Wednesday, the storm had dumped more than a foot of snow in the mountains, leaving wind-driven drifts 7 feet high in some areas.

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.

"My daughter goes, 'Mom, you know how we are. We get excited, and we see a tree and then we see another tree,'" said Lisa Sams, the children's mother. "They just got lost, and they ended up taking a side road that led them to the opposite direction."

Sams says she never lost hope. But inside the hospital where the four were being observed late Wednesday, she said she had been frightened by the nearly continuous snowfall.

'I had a lot of hope'
"The storm is what scared me," Lisa Sams said. "My fear was just them being cold. I couldn't stand the thought of them being cold and not eating. ... But I had a lot of hope and I just ... I couldn't think negative. I could only think positive."

Wearing jeans, sweat shirts and coats, the family built a crude shelter from tree branches the first night and awoke to 8 inches of snow.

They wandered through the woods the next day, eventually finding a culvert that allowed a creek to flow beneath a dirt road, where they stayed until their rescue. They wrote "help" in the snow with branches.

The youngest children were pushed deepest into the shelter, with the father and eldest son blocking the wind, Sams recounted after visiting with them at the hospital.

She said they talked of huddling together, telling jokes and singing songs, to pass the time in the first couple days, before beginning to grow scared and depressed in the last 24 hours.

"We just kept praying and believing in God that he was going to get us out of this," Dominguez told reporters as he was being released from the hospital Wednesday night. "My kids were just troopers, you know."

No food, found water
They had no food but found water to drink. Sams said the family did not eat snow because the father remembered reading that it could cause hypothermia.

Frederick also had taken off his sweat shirt, torn up the fabric and wrapped it around his children's feet, hoping to stave off frostbite. Alexis' toes were changing color, Sams said, but Frederick kept rubbing them to try to keep them warm. Color began to return to the girl's toes in the hospital.

Dominguez moved to the rural foothill town of Paradise about a year ago from Los Angeles to be closer to his children, who live with Sams. Sams said that cutting their own Christmas tree had been a tradition for her and her children, but that this was Dominguez's first time.

The skies were clear when the family entered the woods Sunday and for hours afterward. The first storm wave didn't hit until Monday.

The search expanded significantly Wednesday morning, as snow had stopped falling for the first time since the family went missing.

It intensified as another Pacific storm was heading toward California. That storm, expected to bring 2 feet of additional snow, was just beginning when the helicopter crew spotted the father.

"Everything worked out in their favor, it really did," said Ward, the CHP pilot. "We were lucky."