ESCALON — Heroes are born of circumstance and reaction, never of indecision.
Pilot Bill Cavanaugh is alive, his son said, because an unlikely quartet acted quickly and decisively while risking their lives to save his.
Tuesday afternoon, Cavanaugh's crop-sprayer helicopter crashed in an orchard near Escalon. The 68-year-old Modestan suffered life-threatening injuries but is holding his own at Memorial Medical Center. Rick Cavanaugh is optimistic his father will recover to enjoy many sunny days on the golf course.
If not for three farm- workers and a woman who lives nearby, though, the crash might have been tragic.
"They all had a big impact on how he survived," Rick Cavanaugh said. "I don't really think he would have if they hadn't done what they did. Someone else might have said, 'That's too bad. I'm not going in there.' "
An unlikely quartet, indeed. Jose Vigil, who works for grower Butch Costa, had been moving tree trimmings in the walnut grove on the bottomlands of the 280-acre almond and walnut ranch.
"I heard the helicopter coming this way, and it was making a 'putt-putt' sound," he said. "The motor was missing."
He saw the aircraft plummet to the ground and immediately turned his tractor and headed toward the almond trees on the level above. When he reached the helicopter, he saw Cavanaugh hanging upside down in the cockpit.
"I asked if he was fine and he told me, 'No, I need help,' " Vigil said.
Vigil is married with four grown daughters and two grandchildren. With fuel everywhere and the copter still making noises, he feared it soon would catch fire. With little regard for his own safety, he went to help Cavanaugh. As he neared the aircraft, he saw fuel dripping off Cavanaugh's face.
"I started taking the scraps out of there (the cockpit), getting his helmet and seat belts off," Vigil said.
Neighbor Susan Heiny, meanwhile, also had recognized the sound of a failing aircraft engine.
"My ex-husband's a pilot," she said.
When she heard the sputtering engine, she knew the craft was going down. But where?
"I heard a 'poof!' " she said. She got into her car and headed north on McBride Road. She looked into the orchards for the wreckage but didn't see anything.
Then she saw ranch workers Juan Vasquez and Rigo Avila, who had seen the helicopter go down, turn off McBride and east into the orchard. She followed them to the downed aircraft.
Together, they worked to free Cavanaugh from the cockpit, fuel spewing onto them. But one of Cavanaugh's legs was caught in the wreckage.
"All I could think was that it's going to blow. It's going to blow," Heiny said.
Finally, they freed the leg and pulled Cavanaugh out.
Vigil grabbed Cavanaugh by his jacket lapels. Vasquez and Avila took his legs, and Heiny supported his head.
They carried him well away from the wreckage, still fearing it could catch fire or explode, though it did not. Heiny called 911 and provided directions to the orchard.
She's no stranger to emergencies, having worked as a medical assistant in an operating room. She sent one of the others to get bottled water and rinsed the fuel from Cavanaugh's eyes and face. She knew when she pulled up his shirt that he had serious internal injuries, and Cavanaugh knew he had broken some bones.
Most important, Heiny knew she had to keep him awake.
"I told him, 'I know I'm not a pretty face, but you've got to keep looking at me,' " she told Cavanaugh. " 'Don't go to sleep.' "
Because the helicopter crashed about 200 yards east of McBride and so deep into the orchard, and because there was no smoke to guide them, fire crews and paramedics had a difficult time finding the site.
"We were looking through the trees and could see them," Vasquez said, crouching down to show how he looked beneath the lower limbs. "We were waving at them, but they couldn't see us."
Finally, crews spotted the wreckage and came to take Cavanaugh to the hospital.
All four impromptu rescuers went home reeking of fuel. Heiny had to throw away the clothes she wore, and even her shower curtain.
"I'm still smelling it," she said.
Several days later, she wondered what else she could have done to help Cavanaugh, or to ease his pain until the paramedics arrived.
"I just wished I'd had more resources to help him," she said.
For several nights after the crash, Vigil couldn't sleep.
"I could see him facing me, his body upside down," Vigil said. "I woke up every half-hour."
Same with Vasquez.
"Every 20 minutes to half-hour, I could not sleep," he said. "I'd see him in that condition."
The next day, Vigil helped Rick Cavanaugh, who runs Cavanaugh Flying Service, load the wreckage onto a flatbed.
"We asked if he could get a backhoe," Cavanaugh said. "He said, 'No problem.' A few minutes later, here he came on the backhoe."
Bill Cavanaugh is on the mend, but his flying days are over.
"We'll get his bones to heal where he's not in pain, and I think he's going to do just fine," Rick Cavanaugh said. "Hopefully, he's going to be carrying some golf clubs in a cart."
In no small part, Cavanaugh said, that will be because of the four people who acted so quickly and without hesitation.
"They went above and beyond what they could have done," he said.
Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at 578-2383 or email@example.com.