By Mary O’KEEFE
Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Dept. Air 5 has been on hundreds of rescues and recoveries and are used to seeing just about everything in the Angeles National Forest, but on Sunday they encountered something a little different.
Air 5 was responding to a vehicle over the side of the road in the area of Chantry Flats.
“We had a hard time finding it,” said Dep. Rick Hernandez, a paramedic with LASD Air 5.
The search was difficult because of a heavy canopy of vegetation over the vehicle, but they did find it over the side about 200 feet down. It was hung up in a tree, which stopped it from going farther over the cliff.
“As we were trying to hover over it, we saw movement in the minivan. As we got closer, we saw a giant bear coming out of the car,” Hernandez said. “He was big. We have seen bears [a lot] but this was the biggest bear I have seen.”
The bear ran, apparently frightened by the helicopter activity. The Air 5 crew kept an eye on the bear, which was about 50 yards away from the minivan, and it stayed away as Hernandez was lowered down to the vehicle.
Hernandez fully expected, at best, to find someone injured and, at worst, to find human remains.
“So I went down and checked around the minivan but [didn’t find] any bones or remains,” he said. “When I approached the [vehicle], I could see the seats had all been shredded. It was down to bare metal. Anything that had cloth on it was shredded, like a nest. As I got halfway in the car, I saw some movement … [and there were] two or maybe three bear cubs inside. Once that happened, I knew I had to get out of there.”
As the Air 5 crew kept an eye on mama bear, Hernandez walked away from the vehicle. Luckily the helicopter noise and wind kept the bear away but Hernandez knew she wasn’t going to stay away for long.
The wait for the crew to hoist him back into Air 5 seemed a little longer than it probably was, but he did have a plan if the bear came at him. He was armed but didn’t want to hurt the mother bear that was just protecting her cubs, so he had planned to just jump over the edge to go down the cliff a little farther.
“[The crew] watched to make sure the bear didn’t sneak up on me,” he said.
Hernandez was brought back into the helicopter with the mama bear still at a safe distance.
Hernandez has been with the LASD for 37 years and with the Special Enforcement Bureau for about 31 of those years.
“I have [responded to] hundreds of cars over the side, but this is the first time we found a bear,” he said.
It was later found that the minivan that became the bears’ den had been reported stolen a year ago. Hernandez found no evidence of human remains in or near the vehicle.