SLIDING INTO HYPOTHERMIA - Officer saves teenager's life at remote California waterfall

  • Published
  • By Dana Lineback
  • 940th Wing Public Affairs at Beale AFB, Calif. (AFNS)
During Labor Day weekend in early September, Maj. Jaesin White and his family set out on a hike to a popular swimming hole in the Sierra foothills of Northern California. They never suspected the path they followed into the woods that day would lead them to a teenage girl who would need their help to survive.

"We'd considered driving up to the Oregon border to hunt volcanic rocks, but I wanted to just stay local," said White, commander of the 940th Logistics Readiness Squadron, a Reserve unit at Beale Air Force Base, Calif.

"I'd heard several of the guys at the squadron talking about a natural water slide up in the foothills near here, so I decided to take the family there for the day," he said.

White, his wife, and their three young sons, along with White's parents, parked their car along a dirt road and set off on the three-mile trek that took them down a steep canyon to University Waterfalls Sept. 1.

"It was a pretty good hike in," White said. "I was surprised to see so many people there when we arrived that afternoon."

The family had been there awhile, picnicking and playing in the water, when White noticed a young lady shivering uncontrollably on a nearby rock.

"The water in the pools there is snowmelt from the Sierras, and it's ice cold," White said. "She was exhibiting all the signs of hypothermia ... (the kind) Bear Grylls warns about on his survival shows."

As the 16-year-old girl's condition rapidly deteriorated, the group of family and friends surrounding the young lady seemed confused about what to do to help her.

"They all had that 'deer in the headlights' look, and I could see she was in serious trouble," White said. "My training just kicked in."

The Air Force commander instructed several in the group to vigorously rub her arms and legs. He dispatched someone back to the road to call for help. He sent another to find dry clothes for the girl. He ordered a couple of young men to build a fire. White himself began moving the girl's legs and arms back and forth.

Despite their best efforts, the teenager began slipping into unconsciousness, and her breathing slowed to a stop. White began chest compressions, and the girl's uncle breathed air into her lungs.

She began breathing again and color was returning to her lips when, suddenly, she stopped breathing a second time. White immediately resumed CPR, and the girl came back around.

"I knew we needed to move her out of the forest before nightfall," he said. "We probably had less than an hour of daylight remaining. She couldn't walk, so we draped her arms around our shoulders and carried her up the cliffs along a path that inclined at a 45-degree angle."

It took the group nearly an hour to reach flat land.

"By the time we reached the fire road, she was able to get her feet under her and take small steps with support," White said. "She was responsive and even started worrying about her hair and clothing. (That's when) I knew she'd be all right."

Five minutes later, emergency responders arrived along the isolated road.

"Because of the remote, back country nature of that location, our normal mission time is four to six hours from the time the 911 call comes in to arrival at a definitive care facility," said Greg Schwab, fire chief of the department that responded to the incident that afternoon.

According to Schwab, emergency calls from the falls area have increased dramatically in recent years, jumping from an average of three missions each year to 12 last year.

"It's become entirely too popular to go out there," the fire chief said. "People don't realize how dangerous it can be. You're in a steep canyon with limited cell coverage. If something happens, it takes a while for help to arrive. In this case, I'm glad someone was there who could put together a rescue plan and execute it."

So was the girl whose life White saved.

"God sent me an angel, and that angel was Jaesin," said Karina, the rescued teen. "He's my hero, and I want to thank him from the bottom of my heart for everything. I owe him big time. I'm so thankful to see another day."

"I was just glad there was a happy ending to the weekend," White said.