After 35-foot fall, Yosemite worker healing

pguerra@modbee.comOctober 29, 2012 

— It started as a plan to save money for a car.

Jessica Rose Garcia found herself studying film at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco after administrators cut the program she attended at Modesto Junior College in spring 2011. Knowing she would have a few months off for summer, she looked for a job where she could save up some money.

"I went to a job fair and the park was there," Garcia said. The idea of working at Yosemite National Park appealed to the 23-year-old from Ceres, so she applied online, eventually getting a summer job in transportation at the Yosemite Lodge.

That's where Garcia discovered a love of hiking -- and of saving the money she made. When the position ended at the close of September, she sought another Yosemite job, landing one in housekeeping at the Wawona Hotel.

"I wanted to see snow," she said. "I've never seen snow fall."

It was after job orientation Oct. 6, a Saturday, that she decided to take the long way back to her cabin and become familiar with her new surroundings. She headed out alone for what she thought would be a pleasant morning walk around the Wawona area.

Nobody would see Garcia again for three days, when a search-and-rescue team found her, badly injured, after a 35-foot fall into a rocky creek bed.

"It was a walk," Garcia said. "I didn't treat it like a hike. That's why I didn't take any of my gear."

That gear was a backpack with food, first aid, a headlamp, a water system -- all the things that really would have come in handy to someone lost in the wilderness. It all sat in Garcia's cabin, where she was headed via the 4.75-mile Swinging Bridge Loop trail.

Garcia took off a little after 9 a.m. She'd been walking for about 3½ hours when she fell.

"I'd decided if I wasn't heading in the right direction, I'd turn and go back," she said. She was about to do just that when she slipped on wet rock and fell off a cliff, landing on a granite creek bed between the cliff wall and a boulder.

"I was screaming as I fell, and I tried to grab onto something, but you can't grab onto rock," she said. Once she landed, she immediately knew she was badly injured. She would later learn that a bone in her back had broken and she had badly pulled ligaments in her right leg.

Garcia said she knew she was stuck and nobody would be looking for her for a while. "I was thinking, 'Holy crap, I did this to myself. Oh, my God, this cannot be happening.' "

First, Garcia wanted to get out of the damp area where she found herself.

"My whole objective was to get around the boulder and find a way to be warm and dry," she said. She managed by crawling on her arms and her left leg.

Once in a drier spot, Garcia immediately started thinking, and planning. Earlier in the day, she had sent her sister a text message saying she would be in touch that evening. She thought her sister might tell someone when Garcia failed to send another text. Or her boss would start a search when she didn't show up for work the next day.

In the meantime, her only hydration and nutrition would come from a water bottle and a lollipop she carried with her. She sipped from the bottle for two days and ate the lollipop Sunday.

That first night, Garcia managed to get to a bush that afforded her some protection from temperatures that got down into the 30s. Though she had rejected invitations to go on backpacking trips earlier in the summer because of a fear of camping in areas inhabited by bears, she managed to get some sleep.

Sunday morning, she started looking for a way back, crawling downstream. She thought if she could get somewhere higher, she might be able to use her cell phone, which she had turned off to save the battery.

But large boulders blocked her path. "If I could have used both my legs, it would have been no problem," she said. But without them, she was stuck.

"My whole thing was just trying to find a way out of the river," Garcia said. "I wanted to see my family again."

She made her way back to the bush and slept.

In the meantime, others began to realize something was wrong. Garcia's supervisor went to look for her when she didn't arrive for work Sunday morning. By that afternoon, a search-and-rescue operation was launched. Authorities also called her family, which quickly jumped into action.

Debra Garcia, Jessica's mother, doesn't remember exactly what she did and when. "I was in shock," she said. "It's one emotion after another."

Rangers mobilized searches from the Wawona Hotel area. But nobody knew where Garcia had gone -- shy by nature, she hadn't lived or worked there long enough to make friends. And Yosemite, even just the Wawona area, is a big place to be looking for one person without any idea where she might have been going. Night began to fall with no sign of Garcia.

Monday morning, Garcia decided to try again, going the other way along the creek.

"I thought I would try to see if there was a way to go up the hill," she said.

She hoped there would be people looking for her, but she had no way of knowing.

"A couple of times, I thought I heard a helicopter," she said. She saw several airplanes, but knew they were passenger aircraft up far too high to be of any use.

Without anything to eat since the lollipop Sunday, Garcia considered her meager options.

"There were red ants," she said. "I was thinking about it, but I didn't do it. I was getting there, but I wasn't that hungry."

Underneath her uniform, Garcia wore a purple tank top that would come in handy. Eventually, she would use it as a flag to wave at a helicopter. First, though, she balled it up and bit down on it to help block out the pain.

She thought that if she could get back to where she fell, she might be able to make her way back to the trail. But it was hard going -- when her mother first saw her at the hospital in Fresno, Debra Garcia was struck by the bruises that lined her daughter's forearms -- and she stopped under a tree for another night of fitful sleep and watching the moon cycle.

As temperatures dropped back into the 30s, Garcia found herself shaking in the cold but grateful for her work-issued jacket, which rescuers later told her likely saved her life by keeping her from hypothermia.

One bright spot in the ordeal: "Because I was up so high, I saw a lot of shooting stars. I was trying to think positive."

Family members started a Facebook page to keep extended family and friends updated. That was how Denise Gilmore, a retired nurse, learned what had happened as she returned from a trip to Reno to her home in Redding. Bags still packed, she headed to her sister, Jessica's mother.

More rescue teams arrived at Yosemite to help. Volunteers from Mariposa, Marin and Madera counties joined National Park Service teams.

They kept Garcia's family apprised of every step, showing Debra Garcia on maps where they had been looking and where they planned to go next.

"They were great," Gilmore said.

But for Debra Garcia, there was only one answer that would suffice, and she would spend three sleepless days waiting for it: "I didn't care how I got her back, if she was paralyzed or whatever," Garcia said. "I wanted her back."

At one point, she went for a walk to try to get a grip on her emotions. She found herself drawn to a spot by the start of the Swinging Bridge Loop. She later would learn she stood less than a mile from where her daughter lay.

Tuesday morning, Jessica Garcia again started trying to make her way back. Then she saw the helicopter. She stopped. "When I saw it, I was really happy," she said. She waved her tank top to try to signal the searchers. In her spot among boulders, she was skeptical someone in the helicopter would see her, but she knew for certain they were looking.

About an hour later, she heard someone call her name.

The search team finally had found a clue Tuesday morning: Garcia's employee identification card, which had fallen out of her pocket along the way. Garcia isn't sure if it dropped out when she originally fell or if it happened during one of her crawling expeditions.

Then they came across a soda can; she left that behind Sunday when she couldn't carry both it and her water bottle.

"I sort of left a trail of litter," Garcia said sheepishly.

Garcia looked up and saw a woman, one of the 50 or so volunteers taking part in the search. "I was so happy, I started crying," she said. "Then you think you're safe."

Garcia had to answer a lot of questions: how long she had been out there, what kind of injuries she had, where she fell. She tried her best to answer them as searchers called for a medic.

Rescuers placed Garcia in an inflatable outfit to immobilize her, then she and a medic rode in a rescue basket carried by helicopter to a nearby meadow.

"The ride was pretty neat," she said, though with all the wind from the copter's rotors, she had to keep her eyes shut tight.

She was transferred to an ambulance, which took her to a hospital in Fresno.

Debra Garcia was in the car on the way to her sister Darlene Cunningham's house when she got the call from Gilmore, her other sister, about 1:30 p.m. Tuesday.

"I think she was more hysterical than I was," Garcia said. But there was plenty of emotion to go around.

Garcia wanted to head to Yosemite right away. "I couldn't get to her fast enough." But cooler heads prevailed, and the family met Jessica at the Fresno hospital.

Garcia underwent 12½ hours of surgery, and doctors weren't sure she would walk again. Surgeons replaced the shattered bone in her lower back with a metal rod. They hope the remaining bone will grow to join it and Garcia's nerves eventually will recover completely.

For now, she has numbness in her right leg and pain in her lower back. She is staying at her mom's home in Newman and needs help getting around and taking care of herself while getting ready to start a projected six months of physical therapy.

The family's Facebook page remains up, now offering updates on Garcia's progress. A fund has been established at Bank of the West to help with medical expenses -- a three-month employee, Garcia did not yet have insurance benefits through her employer.

"She's had some depressing times," Gilmore said. "She's an independent, strong girl. It's hard for her to be dependent on others."

Still, Garcia is getting stronger and can get around the house with a walker.

"Each day is better and better," she said. "For exercise, I do laps around the living room and kitchen."

Her bedroom is festooned with flowers and stuffed animals from family and well-wishers. A giant card from Wawona Hotel staff has a prominent spot -- Garcia hopes to return to work there. Before that, she wants to go back and thank the members of the search-and-rescue teams who looked so hard for her.

And she still has more hikes to do, preferably with a friend or a group of people. Debra Garcia said she wouldn't put it past her daughter to get back out on the trails after enduring three days alone and in pain, followed by a grueling back surgery and arduous recovery.

"I've got total faith," she said. "If she could overcome that, there's nothing that's going to stop her."

Donations to help with medical expenses can be made to any Bank of the West branch, into the account for the benefit of Jessica Rose Garcia.

Modesto Bee Breaking News Editor Patty Guerra can be reached at pguerra@modbee.com or (209) 578-2343.

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