Yosemite worker tells of ordeal after fall that left her stranded

10/29/2012 12:00 AM

03/13/2013 8:00 AM

Jessica Rose Garcia needed a summer job. At a job fair, the 23-year-old film student at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco got the idea to apply to work at Yosemite National Park. It would turn out to be a fateful decision.

She applied online and snagged a position in transportation at Yosemite Lodge. When that job ended at the end of September, she found another park job, in housekeeping at the Wawona Hotel.

"I wanted to see snow," she said. "I've never seen snow fall."

After her job orientation Oct. 6, a Saturday, the Ceres woman decided to take the long way back to her cabin and become familiar with her new surroundings. She headed out alone for what she thought would be a pleasant morning walk along the 4.75-mile Swinging Bridge Loop trail.

Nobody would see Garcia again for three days; when a search-and-rescue team finally found her, she was badly injured from a 35-foot fall into a rocky creek bed.

"It was a walk," Garcia said. "I didn't treat it like a hike. That's why I didn't take any of my gear."

Garcia had left a little after 9 a.m. that day. She'd been walking for about 3 1/2 hours when she started to worry she was headed the wrong way. "I'd decided if I wasn't heading in the right direction, I'd turn and go back," she said. She was about to do just that when she slipped on wet rock and fell off a cliff, landing in a granite creek bed between the cliff wall and a boulder.

"I was screaming as I fell, and I tried to grab onto something, but you can't grab onto rock," she said. Once she landed, she immediately knew she was badly injured. "I was thinking, 'Holy crap, I did this to myself. Oh my God, this cannot be happening.' "

She would later learn that a bone in her back had broken and she had badly pulled ligaments in her right leg. But all she knew at the time was that she was stuck and nobody would be looking for her for a while.

She managed to get to a drier spot by crawling on her arms and her left leg and settled in to wait.

Earlier in the day, she had sent her sister a text message saying she would be in touch that evening. Maybe her sister would be alarmed when she didn't get another text. Or maybe her boss would start a search when she didn't show up for work the next day.

In the meantime, her only hydration and nutrition would come from a water bottle and a lollipop she carried with her. She sipped from the bottle for two days and ate the lollipop on Oct. 7.

That first night, Garcia crawled to a bush that afforded her some protection from temperatures that dropped into the 30s. Though she had a fear of bears, she managed to get some sleep.

Sunday morning, she started looking for a way out, crawling downstream. But large boulders blocked her path. "If I could have used both my legs, it would have been no problem," she said. But without them, she was stuck.

"My whole thing was just trying to find a way out of the river," Garcia said. "I wanted to see my family again."

She made her way back to the bush and slept.

Meanwhile, others began to realize something was wrong.

Garcia's supervisor went to look for her when she didn't arrive for work Sunday morning. By that afternoon, a search-and-rescue operation was launched. Eventually, volunteers from Mariposa, Marin and Madera counties joined National Park Service teams.

Debra Garcia, Jessica's mother, doesn't remember much of those first hours. "I was in shock," she said. "It's one emotion after another."

Night fell, with no sign of Garcia.

The morning of Oct. 8, Garcia crawled the other way along the creek. She hoped if she got higher she could use her cellphone, which she had turned off to save the battery.

By that time, Garcia had been without food since the lollipop on Oct. 7. She considered her options.

"There were red ants," she said. "I was thinking about it, but I didn't do it. I was getting there, but I wasn't that hungry."

But she was in pain. She balled up a purple tank top she had worn under her uniform and bit down on it to help block it out. Later, the tank top would help save her.

Night came again, and Garcia found herself shaking from the cold but grateful for her work-issued jacket, which rescuers later told her likely saved her life by preventing hypothermia.

One bright spot in the ordeal: "Because I was up so high, I saw a lot of shooting stars. I was trying to think positive."

The morning of Oct. 9, searchers found a clue: Garcia's employee identification card, which had fallen out of her pocket. Then they came across a soda can; she had left that behind Sunday when she couldn't carry both it and her water bottle.

"I sort of left a trail of litter," Garcia said sheepishly.

As the searchers pressed on, Garcia resolved to try again to crawl her way out of her predicament. Then, she spotted a helicopter. She was sure it was looking for her. "I was really happy," she said.

She waved the purple tank top to try to signal the searchers. But would they see it among the boulders?

About an hour later, she heard someone call her name.

She looked up and saw a woman – one of the volunteer searchers.

"I was so happy, I started crying," she said. Rescuers placed Garcia in an inflatable outfit to immobilize her, then she and a medic rode in a rescue basket carried by helicopter to a nearby meadow.

"The ride was pretty neat," she said, though with all the wind from the copter's rotors, she had to keep her eyes shut tight. She was transferred to an ambulance, which took her to a hospital in Fresno.

Garcia underwent 12 1/2 hours of surgery, and doctors weren't sure she would walk again. Surgeons replaced the shattered bone in her lower back with a metal rod. They hope the remaining bone will grow to join it and Garcia's nerves eventually will recover completely.

For now, she has numbness in her right leg and pain in her lower back. She is staying at her mother's home in Newman and will soon start a projected six months of physical therapy.

The family's Facebook page, erected when Garcia was reported missing, remains up, now offering updates on her progress. A fund has been established at Bank of the West to help with medical expenses; after only three months at the park, Garcia did not yet have insurance benefits through her employer.

Garcia is getting stronger and can get around the house with a walker.

"Each day is better and better," she said.

Her bedroom is festooned with flowers and stuffed animals from family and well-wishers. A giant card from the Wawona Hotel staff has a prominent spot – Garcia hopes to return to work there one day. Before that, she wants to go back and thank personally the members of the search-and-rescue teams who looked so hard for her.

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