Fifteen hikers from a church group who failed to return from a day hike in the Southern California mountains were found safe by a helicopter search crew Monday morning.
The Los Angeles County sheriff's helicopter hoisted the hikers out of the wilderness and they were driven to a nature center and reunited with anxious family and friends.
Hiker Nancy Picado, 22, said the group became worn out after spending Sunday rappelling down a waterfall in the Eaton Canyon Natural Area, a popular hiking spot at the base of the rugged San Gabriel Mountains, about 15 miles northeast of downtown Los Angeles.
“We were wet, we were tired, but we just decided that the best thing we could do is just stay there and rest,” she said. “It was safer for us to just wait until morning.”
Claudia Ortiz, who stood gingerly with one foot bandaged, appeared to have the only injury, but she said it happened during the helicopter rescue.
Just before authorities announced the hikers had been spotted, family and friends who gathered at the search command post had a group hug.
“It was heartbreak to not know what had happened to them,” said Anajancy Armenta, whose sister and brother-in-law were on the hike.
The hikers, 11 adults and four teens, had set out Sunday morning. Later, as they began losing daylight, they decided it was safer to build a fire, shelters and stay put, members of the group said.
Someone on the trek called the local sheriff's station Sunday night and said the group was lost, Deputy Johnie Jones said. Deputies arrived at Eaton Canyon around 10 p.m. and found two relatives of hikers who reported receiving texts from the hiking party that said “help.”
The group, which included some people who had done the hike before, was outfitted with backpacks, first-aid kits, extra clothing, food and water but did not expect to be in the wilderness all night, Jones said.
Crews searched through the night and were joined by reinforcements at daybreak. Helicopters joined the search after early morning low clouds and fog began to break up.
Members of the Seventh Day Adventist church in Huntington Park said the hikers had gone out as a group on treks in the same area previously.
Eaton Canyon is popular with hikers but also common for rescues.
Last summer, the U.S. Forest Service finally closed off access to the Upper Falls because people were ignoring warning signs and climbing unauthorized, steep, crumbling trails into the Angeles National Forest, resulting in rescues and deaths.
At the time, the Forest Service said there were more than 60 rescues in the Upper Falls area alone in 2012, and there had been five deaths since 2011.
The lower waterfall, which has a 50-foot drop, remains accessible to the public.