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Teens rescued after days stranded in California snowstorm: "We were already convinced we were going to die"

Severe weather slams the U.S.
Severe weather slams U.S. as California digs out of heavy snow 02:39

When his 17-year-old son and friend headed off for a 10-day trek in the Southern California mountains, Cesar Ramirez said he wasn't too worried. The teens — Riley Ramirez and Cole White — were avid hikers with ample foods in their backpacks, a tent and snowshoes, plus extensive training and aspirations to join the military.

But when the snow began pummeling the mountains east of Los Angeles by the foot-load and Ramirez lost contact with them through a tracking app, he called the San Bernardino County sheriff's department. They dispatched a helicopter to the boys' last known location, followed their foot tracks and spotted and rescued them. By then, Ramirez's son had lost his jacket to the wind, and their tent had broken, the father said.

"They've told us, 'We were already convinced we were going to die,' " said Ramirez, of Cypress, California.

The crew flew the teens to the Morongo Basin Sheriff's Station, where they received medical attention, food, water, and a warm place until their parents arrived, the sheriff's department said in a statement.

The dramatic rescue came as California has struggled to dig out residents in mountain communities from as much as 10 feet of snow after back-to-back storms battered the state. Gov. Gavin Newsom has declared states of emergency in 13 counties including San Bernardino County, where the massive snowfall has closed roads, caused power outages, collapsed roofs and trapped residents in their homes for days.

Winter Weather California
This NASA Earth Observatory satellite image using Landsat data from the U.S. Geological Survey, shows the Santa Clarita, Lancaster and Angeles National Forest area north of Los Angeles, Sunday, Feb. 26, 2023, during recent snowstorms. / AP

San Bernardino County sheriff 's Sgt. John Scalise  said the boys were slightly hypothermic and lucky to be alive after huddling together for three nights to stay warm. He said they were well-prepared for the hike but not for the massive amounts of snow over the next several days.

"They knew there was weather. But I don't think they expected the amount," Scalise said. "I have been doing search and rescue for, oh gosh, the last 18 years in my career. And I can tell you these kids should have been dead."

In a separate rescue operation further north in Inyo County, a man was found waving inside his partly snow-covered vehicle Thursday after the California Highway Patrol identified a cellphone ping linked to him and sent out a helicopter crew. He drove out from the community of Big Pine and was last heard from on Feb. 24, sheriff's authorities in the county on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada said in a statement.

Another strong storm dumped more snow Saturday on Northern California mountain communities, and a winter storm warning was in effect through early Monday, according to the National Weather Service in Sacramento.

In Southern California's San Bernardino Mountains, authorities have been working to clear roads and distribute food, water and blankets to snow-battered residents while the Red Cross has set up a shelter at a local high school. There is a slight chance of snow showers in the region on Sunday, according to the National Weather Service in San Diego.

Authorities have said some residents could be shut in for another week because of the challenges in clearing out so much snow.

Yosemite National Park officials said last week that the park would have to be closed indefinitely after some areas of the park got up to 15 feet of snow.  Yosemite spokesperson Scott Gedimen, who has been a ranger at the California park for more than a quarter of a century, told The Los Angeles Times that the most recent downfall is "the most snow that I've ever seen at one time." 

Katy Curtis, who lives in the San Bernardino mountain community of Crestline, said she hiked with snowshoes for five miles (eight kilometers) to get a can of gasoline to a family trapped in their house to fuel a generator.

"I'm healthy, so I just thought, well, I can walk, and I did. But it was probably the longest day of my life," said Curtis, adding the family had someone with medical needs. Cars are completely buried, and snow is piled up to the roof of her home. Curtis said.

"We're just all so exhausted in every way," she said.

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