"Hold still, you grouchy old nag," Todd laughed at his bay gelding as he cinched the saddle up tight. The horse snorted angrily, blowing snot on his owner's shirt, and tried to bite his arm.
"Too quick for you," Todd told him, jerking his arm away. He slipped the bit into the horse's mouth and swung up onto his back. Sonny plodded reluctantly
to the green Powder River corral gate, which Todd unlatched and swung open.
Bill Todd, airline pilot and part-time rancher, surveyed the panoramic view of the bay from his corral at the top of Mount Cabrillo. He could see from the
farms on the outskirts of Española to the open space beyond Santa Rita that swept up the hill toward the university campus. The circular bay stretched south from narrow sandy beaches toward Monterey and Pacific Grove, across twenty miles of sparkling azure water.
It was a stroke of flight scheduling luck that Todd could spend the morning mending fences around his forty-acre gentleman's ranch. The downside to his lifestyle was the drive to work. The skinny old road snaked across and down the hill from Mount Cabrillo Park at the top to south Santa Rita. No guardrails
separated the roadway from the sheer cliffs, which in some places dropped vertically several hundred feet.
Todd spotted dangling wire and four metal fence posts pushed over, the result of seven tons of hungry cattle poking their necks through the fence. "Damn
cows are just like people, they always think the grass is greener on the other side," he said to no one.
He swung out of the saddle and tied the horse to a tree. Sonny nuzzled his left arm and grunted. "Oh, so now you like me? I know what you want." He reached
into a saddlebag and pulled out two green apples, which he cut into quarters with a pocket knife and held one piece at a time in the palm of his hand.
Sonny grabbed them with his agile lips and chewed with surprising delicacy.
After the repair, they made their way to the corner of the ranch, a small, level meadow studded with century-old white oaks hidden from the roadway by a
row of apple trees. The meadow abutted a precipitous drop into a narrow canyon, which was bisected by a creek about twelve feet wide and six inches deep.
From the sharp curve in the roadway above, the drop to the bottom was fifty feet or more.
Sound carried well in the open air, and Todd heard a car on the road. It idled for several minutes, then the engine roared, tires screeched, and Todd looked
up just as a shiny white car sailed past the edge of the roadway over the tops of the trees and manzanita brush. It seemed to hang in the air momentarily, then it rolled slowly to its left, pitched forward, and hurtled end over end toward the ground. He saw it land on its wheels, bounce, and settle on its passenger side in the muddy water.
"Jesus Christ," Todd muttered to himself. He yanked a cellular phone from a leather case on his belt and punched in 9-1-1.
"County Communications," a female voice answered.
"There's been an accident nearthetop of Mount Cabrillo," he reported. "A car went over the cliff."
"What's your name and address, sir?" the dispatcher asked.
"William Todd. Fourteen-seventy-seven Mount Cabrillo Grade Road."
"Are you at the location of the accident now?"
"I'm on a cell phone in the pasture behind the house. I can see it from here."
"Okay, don't hang up." After a minute, she was back on the line. "I dispatched the Highway Patrol. Can you wait and show them the accident?"
California Highway Patrol Officer Sterling looked over the edge of the cliff at the car below, whistled, and exclaimed, "Holy shit!" Then he asked Todd, "Is
there any way down there?"
"Yeah, there's a trail over there. Follow me."
The two men slid down the steep slope and Sterling surveyed the car, which rocked precariously on its side. "I've got to call this in." He lifted the portable radio. "County Comm, four-lincoln-twenty-two. I'm at that accident on Mount Cabrillo. The car's on its side at the bottom of a gully in Cloudy Creek. It's pretty shaky. If I climb up on it, it's gonna roll over. Alert County Fire Search and Rescue, they'll need to get to the crash site up the creek bed in all-terrain vehicles. I think they're gonna have to airlift the victims outta there, so notify the S.O. to spin the chopper up. I'll wait here."
"Ten-four, I'll contact the Sheriff's office. County Comm out."
After about ten minutes, Sterling picked up the faint whine of a small four-stroke engine. He poked Todd and pointed downstream. "There they are."
Todd saw one, then three more chartreuse Honda four-wheel ATVs scream upstream, right wheels on the dry creek bed, left wheels kicking out rooster tails of brown water, engines howling in protest. The first unit careened to a halt alongside and slightly upgrade from the rear end of the car. The second, piloted by a fire fighter with "PARAMEDIC" stenciled on his jacket, slid to a stop alongside, followed by the others. The firefighters acknowledged Sterling and Todd, but went quickly to work. One pulled a yellow polyvinyl rope from the back of an ATV, tossed it over the top of the car, tie done end to the car's frame and the other end around a large tree to stabilize it temporarily. The second cranked up a portable generator, while the other two secured the car to solid oak trees with two quarter-inch wire cables on the uphill side and another two downhill.
Once the car was stable, Paramedic Johnny Wong climbed onto the car and peered into the interior through the driver's window. He saw two bodies inside the car, arms and legs akimbo, and blood everywhere. He could tell one was a man and the other a woman, but little else. He braced one foot against the rear window frame and yanked hard on the driver's door handle. It wouldn't budge. "Fuck," he said aloud. "Hey, Legs, hand me a crowbar."
Fire Captain Shirley MacLain, dubbed "Legs" for the movie star after whom she was named, grabbed a tool from her ATV and handed it up. Wong pried around the perimeter of the door, but it refused to open.
"Break the driver's window." MacLain suggested.
"Can't, Cap. Glass'd fall on'em. Need the Jaws," he said, referring to the hydraulically operated scissors they called the Jaws of Life. "And we can't get these people outta here without the chopper. Where's it stand? Those people are hurt bad, if they're alive. Once we get 'em out of the car and stabilized, they've gotta get to the hospital in a hurry."
"I called it in," Sterling told him. "It should be overhead by the time you extricate them."
MacLain handed Wong the Jaws of Life, which looked like a giant steel woodpecker with a hydraulic hose stuck up its rear end. It could effectively crush, or pry and separate, exerting enormous force in either direction.
Wong stuck the tips of the Jaws into a gap between the driver's door and the frame, and mashed the hydraulic actuator lever. The portable power unit
bogged down under the heavy load, and the Jaws inched opened. As they spread, the gap grew until the door finally sprang loose with a metallic crunch.
Wong dropped the Jaws on the ground, flopped the door open, and dropped into the car's interior. MacLain climbed up to help, while the other fire-fighters
prepared stretchers with Todd and Sterling's help.
"He's got a pulse," Wong shouted. He wrapped a collar around each victim's neck, inflated them, then lifted the man out the door. MacLain helped lower him to the men below, who placed him on a stretcher.
They repeated the process with the woman, then carried the stretchers away from the wreck and lay them on a level dry spot.
Wong listened to the woman's chest through a stethoscope and lifted her eyelids."No heartbeat, pupils fixed and dilated. Shit, man, she's dead. Get
blankets on 'em. Notify County General Emergency that one of the victims is alive. Rig the slings, I hear the chopper. This guy's got to get to the hospital, stat! Rig her, too, just in case."
A green and white Bell helicopter swooped over the ridge, dropped down, and hovered about forty feet above the car. The downdraft kicked water and gravel
in every direction. A sheriff's deputy dropped cable from a davit on the chopper's starboard side to the firefighters, who hooked it to the man's stretcher sling. Then he winched it up and dragged the stretcher through the cargo door. He winched the woman up next. As soon as the second stretcher disappeared inside, the machine banked and roared toward Santa Rita.
As the search and rescue team assembled its gear, Sterling asked Wong, "He gonna make it?"
"Maybe," the paramedic answered. "but he's hurt pretty bad."
Copyright © 1999 by Christine McGuire