Family of 4 found after days in snow

Flight officer David White walks Joshua and Alexis Dominguez from a helicopter after their rescue.
Flight officer David White walks Joshua and Alexis Dominguez from a helicopter after their rescue. Sacramento Bee Staff Photo

PARADISE -- Time was running out.

With another fierce storm heading toward the snow- covered mountains of Butte County on Wednesday, the window of finding the Dominguez family was getting smaller by the minute.

And with the clouds growing thicker and the wind starting to pick up, officers in a California Highway Patrol helicopter scanning the region made a stunning find on their final pass of the day:

A man jumping and waving frantically in the snow beside the word "HELP" written in twigs.

The desperate signal -- found three days after Frederick Dominguez and his three children wandered into the wilderness 25 miles northeast of Chico in search of a Christmas tree -- brought a three-day rescue effort to a miraculous conclusion.

"When they turned around," a jovial Dominguez would later say at a hospital, "I was just praying to God, saying 'Thank you, lord. Thank you, lord.' "

The helicopter's pilot had been told not to bother flying Wednesday, but took advantage of a brief break in the weather to make a 30-minute loop into the canyons that rescuers had been unable to reach on foot.

Within minutes after the helicopter landed on a dirt road about 12:45 p.m. and scooped up Dominguez and his children -- 18-year-old Christopher, 15-year-old Alexis and 12-year-old Joshua -- the weather had turned again. And it wasn't expected to ease up for two days.

The family made it by taking shelter in a damp tunnel beneath the road where the helicopter landed, surviving temperatures that dipped into the 20s and snow squalls that dumped two to six feet on the region since they walked away from their truck and into the woods at 5 p.m. Sunday. They were found about four miles from where their ordeal began.

They sang songs during the days, but the nights were miserable. At one point, Joshua asked his father if he thought they would survive.

"Son," he replied, "I would tell you what I bought you for Christmas if I didn't think we're going to make it."

Dominguez and his children -- dressed in jeans, sneakers and light jackets -- trudged into the woods just before nightfall Sunday with an ax. After passing up a couple of trees, they settled on a keeper, cut it down and headed back to their truck.

But it quickly became clear they were headed in the wrong direction, and they ditched the tree. Eventually, they came upon a road. Frederick and Joshua went one way; his oldest son and daughter took off in the other direction.

As a pitch black sky settled over the forest, the family regrouped. Alexis was exhausted and it began to snow, so the family took shelter near a big log, using branches to form a makeshift roof.

Monday morning brought a fresh layer of snow. In the distance, the family heard the faint roar of sirens and the barking of dogs.

Heading back onto the road, the family realized they needed a sturdier shelter and discovered a 15-foot culvert running beneath the roadway. Christopher wrapped his siblings' feet in his favorite shirt and joked with his dad that he owed him a new one.

One of Alexis' shoes fell off and by Tuesday morning, her foot had turned black. Through it all, Frederick said he tried to keep the mood light, talking about eating at In-N-Out Burger.

On Wednesday, Alexis was the first to hear the helicopter.

The three children were jumping up and down as the helicopter landed and Alexis was in tears, said David White, the flight officer and paramedic on the CHP helicopter.

All four family members were hypothermic but not seriously injured, and were discharged from Feather River Hospital in Paradise, their hometown, about 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, officials said.

Their frightening outing did little to damper the spirits of the Dominguez family.

"In real life," Frederick Dominguez said, "people who love each other, they pull together."