I just don't know what to say...
Three women left Pahrump Thursday, July 22, expecting to take a sightseeing tour to Scotty’s Castle in Death Valley and be home in time for dinner.
That was not to be.
Donna Cooper, 62, Gina Cooper, 17, and a house guest visiting from Hong Kong, 19-year-old Jenny Leung, left the Cooper residence around 11 a.m., made the trip to Scotty’s Castle and seemingly disappeared.
Although it was unusual for Donna Cooper to not tell the caretaker for the family’s property — this reporter — that she wasn’t coming home, no one, including Cooper’s husband, who was in Florida, became alarmed until Gina Cooper didn’t show up for work at 4 p.m. Friday afternoon.
Being a responsible young woman, not calling her employer was out-of-the-ordinary.
Rodger Cooper requested his caretaker assist with filing a missing persons report with Nye County Sheriff’s Office and Deputy Mark Cannon was dispatched to take the information. After consulting with Cooper’s husband in Florida by phone, the deputy returned to the sheriff’s office and filed a nationwide “be on the lookout” for the three missing women.
The women had been in Death Valley 28 hours and counting. The family was frantic. Gina Cooper was an athlete for Death Valley Academy but Donna Cooper had been suffering from sudden bouts of heat exhaustion and Leung stood five-foot-seven-inches tall and only weighed about 110 pounds.
When no word came from NCSO by 6:30 a.m. Saturday morning, the caretaker called asking if something could be done to get air support involved in a search for the women.
An NCSO dispatcher, only identified as “Lori,” answered the call. She said, “We can’t tell California what to do to get involved.” There was no mention of calling Nye County Search and Rescue. Asked what could be done by an individual, she gave a list of phone numbers including Death Valley National Park Ranger Station, Inyo County Sheriff’s Office and California Highway Patrol.
The calls were made. None of the agencies had any of the details other than the “be on the lookout” released by NCSO the evening before. No alarm had been raised.
A return phone call came from Inyo County Deputy Richards who listened to the details and said he was heading to the ranger station in Death Valley to see what could be done. He said air support was likely and promised to be in touch within the next couple of hours. It was 10 a.m., and the temperatures in Death Valley would reach 128 degrees.
At noon on Saturday, tense family members and friends learned California officials were in action. Two aircraft from Victorville had been dispatched to start searching Death Valley. A helicopter from one of the Air Force bases in California, it was hoped, would join the search. Three teams of Special Forces were on the ground searching the back country — those trained to withstand the harsh environment and lend help to those who might succumb.
Financial information about Cooper’s credit cards was obtained online by her daughter in Florida who reported to Deputy Richards only two transactions on Thursday, one for fuel and one for tickets to Scotty’s Castle. Wherever they were, the women were without food or water. It was 2 p.m. They had been missing for 49 hours.
With California aircraft and DVNP employees, deputies and dispatchers from Inyo County all working together, it would still take five hours, and, according to CHP Pilot Scott Steele, one final pass over an area miles from Scotty’s Castle to find the missing women.
It was 5 p.m. Saturday when the call came from California Highway Patrol that the women had been found. A CHP helicopter had spotted the car on a deserted stretch of dirt road.
Although Cooper was, according to Steele, 128 miles from Scotty’s Castle, she had traveled over 400 miles on the unmarked system of trails in Death Valley and run out of gas.
Cooper said she had GPS onboard, and tried to use it. “It kept telling me to go one mile and turn either right or left on Saline Valley Road.” Cooper said she never saw a road sign and sometimes she’d go one mile and there was no turn at all.
Cooper said by the time the fuel light came on in her Hyundai Accent, she had traveled so many miles there was no turning back. So she kept going forward hoping to come out of the desolation to “a paved road leading somewhere.”
“It didn’t happen,” Cooper said. “When the car stopped the first night, we were in relatively little shade, but it was late and we slept in the car.
“At that point we had three-quarters of a bottle of water between us.”
Gina Cooper took a two-mile hike the next morning to see if she could get above the rocks and see some sign of life to which the group could walk. Her report — desert and more desert.
Cooper decided they had to move to another location. It was starting to get hot.
“It was a miracle when the car started, and even more of a miracle when we got turned around and back-tracked 45 miles on a below-empty tank of gas,” she said.
The car came to a stop at a cluster of trees Cooper said she remembered having passed. Having no other choice in the scorching heat, the group made an “X” in the road behind the disabled car out of two found poles, four big rocks and Gina Cooper’s San Francisco 49ers bandana used as a spot of red in the cross. They wrote “Help Us” and “Please Call Police” across the rear of the car, and walked into shelter offered by the trees.
“The road was so hot it was burning my feet through my shoes,” said Cooper.
“What we found was amazing. There in the middle of nowhere were three trailers, a screened sleeping porch and a couple of storage containers.
“There was no one around, and needing any kind of help we could get, we peeked into the window of one of the trailers and saw a two-way radio on the table.” The women proceeded to try the doors and windows until finally, a screen opened far enough to allow Leung to slip through and open the door for the others.
They never did get the radio working but they found something much more important — water — and food. “We turned on the faucets and hot water came out of both of them. It didn’t matter. It was water,” Cooper said.
At 5 p.m. Saturday, a noise captured Leung’s attention and going outside she was thrilled to see a helicopter making circles over the property. Grabbing a yellow blanket and waving it frantically, she screamed for Cooper who was inside.
“When I came out to see what she was yelling about — well — I’ve never seen anything so beautiful in all my life as that helicopter. I could see the CHP on the bottom of it and knew we’d been found,” said Cooper with tears in her eyes.
As it turned out, Cooper was on Saline Valley Road and had never seen a road sign anywhere.
The group was airlifted to the California Highway Patrol office at Lone Pine, to fill out a report and make arrangements to get fuel.
“They put us in touch with a guy named ‘Lizard’ Lee,” said Cooper. “Apparently he lives in the desert and keeps extra fuel somewhere. He brought enough gas to give me three-quarters of a tank and met us back at the car.”
Cooper and the girls pulled into her Pahrump driveway at 3 a.m. Sunday morning — safe and sound.
“We are more grateful than words can ever express,” said Cooper. “And to Marilyn Moyer and Peder Samuelson, of Atherton, Calif., who own the property where we stopped, you saved our lives. Thank you so much.”
The one thing she asks of Death Valley National Park is to mark every road at every intersection — it could save a life.