High anxiety: Armando Armenta, Gina Natera's husband, sweats it out. All photos in this post by Kenneth Steinhardt, OC Register, except for Gina's pix, which was plucked from her Facebook page
The ultrarunning community in Southern California came together en masse last week to search for two of its own in a show of force that even blew away authorities. Without the help of runners, I'm convinced that the end of this bizarre story could have turned out much different.
For example, Charlie Nickell singlehandedly saved crucial search time by quickly locating a truck used by the runners and explaining to investigators the likely trails the two took in the area around Blue Jay Campground. Runners too numerous to mention here were "embedded" with search and rescue teams, providing invaluable knowledge and perspective on the lost runners.
The story has been told, but in short, Gina Natera and her brother-in-law, Fidel Diaz, went missing for about 72 hours. Fidel walked out of the Cleveland National Forest into the Lazy W Ranch off Ortega Highway at around 8:30 a.m. Wednesday, Sept. 23. Seemingly against all odds, a helicopter spotted Gina five hours later, in a very rugged and remote area that is difficult to imagine as a place someone would willingly wander into in 100-degree heat. Gina was flown to a hospital in critical but stable condition.
I am thrilled beyond words for the safe return of my friend, Gina. I do not know Fidel well, but of course I am glad he's OK, too. However, I think I speak for many runners in saying that there are a lot of unanswered questions about this near tragedy -- and a desire for a detailed accounting of what happened.
Fidel talks to sheriff's deputies
At the top of my list of questions is, How did Fidel spent his three days in the wilderness? I was one of the first people to see him emerge from the forest. He looked dirty and tired, but his condition certainly was nowhere near as grave as Gina's. She was less than 24 hours from death due to dehydration and kidney failure, doctors said.
Unfortunately, I was only able to talk to Fidel for a minute or two before sheriff's investigators swooped him away. I do not know what he told authorities, and he has not responded to two requests for interviews to hear his side of the story.
What a mystery.
Did Fidel, unlike Gina, have access to water? Perhaps he found a water source. I wish I knew.
Armando, with Michelle Mecham and Molly Kassouf
Rumors are swirling about this episode, and I am not interested in expanding on them. It would be nice, though, to hear from Fidel so the ultrarunning community can rest a bit easier after he fills the holes in the story. After all, besides celebrating the safe return of Gina and Fidel, I believe that we all want to learn what we can from this very dangerous episode so as to better avoid any similar incident from befalling us.
It would be nice to find out how these two very experienced and strong runners got separated, and what prevented help from being summoned earlier. Fidel, after all, walked out on his own and did not even require immediate hospitalization. I mean, that's truly amazing. That's a helluva long time to be lost without summoning help, but I can't speak for Fidel. I can only imagine the fear and disorientation both runners felt. I shudder at what they went through.
So, Fidel and Gina, welcome home. Get better, and let us know how we can help. Just as importantly, teach us how we can prevent something like this from happening again.