By Mary O’KEEFE
The Montrose Search and Rescue Team has been serving Crescenta Valley and the surrounding areas since 1947. They go through the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Academy training in addition to the hours and hours of training they do as a team. The team responds to calls locally and all over the country. Members were recently searching for Ed Rosenthal, the lost hiker in the Joshua Tree National Forest. He was found alive after six days in the desert.
Team members climb mountains, swim rivers, rappel from helicopters and walk for miles when needed to do their job. And for this they get paid $1 a year. These are extreme volunteers.
After over 60 years and thousands of rescue calls, only one member of the team has lost his life. On Friday, Oct. 1 sheriff officials, community members and volunteers gathered at the Crescenta Valley Sheriff’s Station to officially kick off a fundraising campaign to create a memorial for the fallen Montrose Search and Rescue Team member Deputy Chuck Rea. Also honored will be CV Sheriff Deputy David Horr. Both men lost their lives in the performance of their duty.
It was the big flood of 1969. According to U.S. Forest Service more rain fell in the San Gabriel Mountains in nine days than New York City has in a year.
Big Tujunga at La Paloma Flats had been hit exceptionally hard during the rains and several residents including a sick child needed to be evacuated.
“The bridge was gone and about 20 to 30 people were stranded at the Tujunga Wash,” said Dan Hensley, a long time member of the Montrose Search and Rescue Team.
The team responded to the call for evacuation, and when they arrived they discovered a rapidly running river and no way across.
“And oh it was raining,” Warren Boehm, a team member in 1969, said.
The rain was so heavy at times they could not see the other side of the wash with only the sound of thunderous river rolling past them, Boehm said.
“But we had to get across,” Hensley added.
The team had been on several rescues in the rain the day before and thought they were used to the storm, but that feeling changed as they approached the Tujunga Wash.
“It was loud, boulders as big as Volkswagens were traveling down the [wash]. The bridge and the footbridge were gone,” Hensley recalled.
With the wind and rain there was no way to throw a line across. Hensley and some other members were bow hunters and thought that would be the best way to help guide the stranded residents back over. Jack Munson, the team’s captain at the time, decided to split the team into two sections. While one group was working on shooting the line, the second was to investigate if there was another way across the river. Hensley was in the second group with Rea.
“Up and down the [wash] there were islands,” Hensley said.
The men decided to island hop to get to the other side.
“We started cutting down trees and used them as bridges,” he said. “We were at this, out in the rain, for about three hours. We didn’t have lumberjack tools.”
The group would cut the trees and then cross. They had reached one island.
“Jack Hollen crossed to the second island,” Hensley said.
At this point the second team had lost radio contact with the first team. The rain was still coming down, the river was rising and they were alone on the islands.
“And the sound was incredible,” Hensley added.
They had to yell at each other and still it was difficult to hear other team members.
After Hollen had crossed to the second island, word came that the other team had been successful and a safety rope was in place. The second team was called back.
“At some point Chuck went back on his own,” Hensley said.
With the rain, the noise and the darkness Hensley did not notice that Rea had left to cross back over the fallen tree trunk to the mainland.
“Jack was still on the second island and the tree he used to cross had been swept away,” he said.
They determined it was too dangerous to cross the river without a rope so Hollen used the overhanging trees and began to swing across.
“He was like a gymnast. I saw him coming over and I was concerned he would go into the water and be swept away,” Hensley said.
So the team members decided to wade into the water as far as they could. Hollen would drop and they would pull him to the bank of the island. Hensley waded out with another team member holding onto to his belt loop. Hollen worked his way as close as he could to his fellow teammates and then dropped. They pulled him to safety.
Hensley turned back to the area where they had first crossed. He noticed Rea wasn’t there but thought he would be waiting at the crossing point.
“I was the first one to reach the crossing and I noticed our log was gone,” he said. “Mike McKenna [another team member] was on the far side of the bank yelling at me but because of the roar of the water I couldn’t hear him. There were at least 100 waterfalls nearby. Mike was pointing down at the water. I looked and could see Chuck underwater. I thought he was just tying a rope to one of the logs. Then it hit me. He was down there too long. I yelled at Mike that he needed to get Chuck out of the water but we still couldn’t hear each other. I then started taking off some of my clothes. I was going to dive in for him. I looked up at Mike and he made a gesture across his throat. That’s when I panicked,” Hensley said.
Rea had apparently attempted to cross back from the island to the mainland when he slipped off the crossing log.
Roger Baits, one of the strongest team members, saw Rea and rushed to help him. Rea fell on the up stream side of the log and was pushed under it. His safety lines held but the water was pounding him.
“Roger saw him go under. He crawled out on the log and grabbed him. He would hold him up but the water was so strong. Chuck would take a deep breath he would go under for a while, and then Roger would pull him back up and hold him for as long as he could. But he was no competition for the force of the water. That force was enough to take out a bridge,” Hensley said. “Roger was the strongest guy on our team; if he couldn’t hold on no one could have.”
Dennis Kelley, a team member, wrote a story about that night. In it he describes how he and other members of the first team had found out about Rea. An old man was there as Bates and Rea were battling the raging water. He hurried to the rest of the team for help.
“[Rea’s] climbing helmet with his rain gear parka hood over it was constrained by the stretched webbing over his head and arms forcing his head down. The result was literally like hanging free from webbing around you chest. He could not last long that way because of the pressure on his chest,” he wrote.
“His helmet was set back behind him. It was full of water,” Boehm said.
When Kelley arrived the waters had risen and all he could see was Rea’s hand as if frozen in time reaching out from the water.
With the log gone the second team had to cut and build another tree bridge to cross farther up the island. While members on the mainland tried to free Rea’s body but the force of the water was too great. The rain was continuing and the water was rising, and they had to leave their comrade behind that night.
The sheriff’s department negotiated to have the waters stopped at the Big Tujunga dam. The rain had stopped and they retrieved Rea’s body.
Boehm added that Rea’s death was with him every time he went out after that.
“We didn’t think we could do anything but we did think we were pretty good,” Hensley added. “But sometimes you think you are good enough for the job and sometimes you’re not.”
The memorial that is now in the process of fundraising will honor these two men. Deputy Sgt. Charles (Chuck) Rea and Deputy David Horr who succumbed to his injuries after being shot while responding to a call in La Crescenta.
“We want to honor those who lost their lives and to remind the current staff to be safe,” Capt. Dave Silversparre said of the memorial.
Donations to the memorial can be made through the CV Sheriff’s Support Group. In the memo portion of the check note the donation is for the Sheriff’s Memorial fund. Mail donations to CV Sheriff’s Support Group, P.O. Box 12458, La Crescenta, CA 91214.