Yosemite employee to have spinal surgery

10/10/2012 11:14 AM

10/10/2012 11:31 PM

Investigators and family continue to piece together what happened to Jessica Rose Garcia after the 23-year-old from Ceres disappeared on a hike at Yosemite National Park on Saturday afternoon.

Garcia apparently fell about 35 feet in steep terrain about two miles from the Wawona base where she last was seen, said her aunt, Darlene Cunningham. Search and rescue teams looked for Garcia for 2½ days after she failed to show up for her first day of work at the Wawona Hotel on Sunday morning.

"We know some things, but we're still kind of in the dark on exactly what happened," Cunningham said Wednesday.

Garcia remains in a hospital — the city and facility have not been disclosed — where she's undergoing tests for possible fractured vertebrae, Cunningham said. She is scheduled to undergo eight hours of spinal surgery today. She also suffered a broken pelvis and leg, as well as potential dehydration from spending three days without food or water.

Garcia, a graduate of Johansen High School in Modesto, spent the summer working in Yosemite Valley. She planned to return to studying filmmaking at the Art Institute of San Francisco, but then got an opportunity to work at the Wawona Hotel through November.

"She wanted to stay as long as she could," Cunningham said. "She found her peace, her happiness in Yosemite."

Cunningham said Garcia long has been an avid walker and fell in love with the park environment. Her family was happy to see the quiet, shy young woman shine in jobs that required her to work with the public.

"She was at the stage where she was finding out what she wanted to do in life," Cunningham said. "She found her niche."

Park rangers called Garcia's family late Sunday morning after she did not show up for work. She had not been seen since leaving an orientation session Saturday. Family members kept in touch with rangers by phone Sunday, then headed to the park before dawn Monday.

"It was the worst thing any family could go through," Cunningham said. "We couldn't eat knowing she wasn't eating. We couldn't sleep knowing she wasn't sleeping."

She said park officials did everything they could to keep the family informed, and she expressed gratitude at the dozens of searchers, some with dogs or on horseback, who looked for her niece. Teams came from within the park itself, as well as Madera, Mariposa and Marin counties.

"They took very good care of us while we were there," Cunningham said. "They kept us informed of all the different areas that were being searched and what they were doing."

Searchers found Garcia about 1 p.m. Tuesday. Family members still don't know exactly how long she had been there, nor the circumstances of her fall. They did learn that she had changed from the work outfit she'd last been seen in and was wearing a jacket and a vest.

Now the family has turned its attention toward recovery. Cunningham said it's not clear if Garcia has any long-term injuries.

"We're all happy she's alive," she said. "We always had hope, but as each day passed, we were definitely more stressed and more nervous about her survival.

"We knew she was young and strong and had that in her to make it through."

Bee breaking news editor Patty Guerra can be reached at pguerra@modbee.com or (209) 578-2343. Follow her on Twitter at @pattyguerra.

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