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Couple Pulled From Wreckage of Plane : Rescue: Pilot’s use of hand-held radio helps team to site in San Gabriel Mountains, ending a daylong search. Victims are in stable but guarded condition.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Guided by a downed pilot using a hand-held radio, rescuers pulled a couple from the wreckage of their small plane Tuesday after a grueling, daylong search through rugged, cloud-shrouded terrain in the San Gabriel Mountains.

Officials at San Antonio Community Hospital in Upland identified the couple as James Thomas, 39, of Covina, and his wife, Becky, 36. They were in stable but guarded condition, both with multiple fractures and lacerations, said nursing supervisor Joanne Tarbell.

The Thomas’ four-seater Cessna 182 was en route to Ontario International Airport from Blythe when it crashed at about 10 a.m. Tuesday, authorities said.

A team of about 15 rescuers from the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department was dropped by helicopter on a peak above the crash site and worked its way down through the clouds to the plane, which was upside down in a rugged canyon above Rancho Cucamonga, said Capt. Don Belter. Another team made its way to the wreckage from below in trucks, he said.

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“The ground team reached them first shortly before 7 p.m.,” Belter said. “We got a break in the weather when the cloud cover lifted, and we were able to send a large helicopter in to bring them out.”

Jim Bryant, a spokesman for the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department, said the plane was on approach to Ontario at about 10 a.m. when its radio communication with the control tower abruptly broke off.

Later, officials at TRACON, the regional air traffic control center in Palmdale, heard Thomas calling for help on his hand-held radio. The sheriff’s aerial rescue team was dispatched, and a helicopter picked up Thomas’ radio communications.

“The guy said he was upside down and trapped in the rear of the plane,” Bryant said. “He was disoriented.”

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By talking with Thomas, rescuers flying in a constantly circling helicopter were able to determine the general location of the wreckage, about 12 miles northeast of Chaffey College.

Because the crash site, between Deer and Day canyons was shrouded by thick clouds, the sheriff’s aircraft was unable to spot the wreckage or drop rescuers in the immediate vicinity. The rescuers were forced to drop into a clearing and hike through the rugged terrain toward the wreckage, about 6,300 feet above sea level. By late afternoon, they had fought their way through the brush and were able to hear Thomas banging on the wing of the plane, Bryant said.

Authorities initially believed that four people were aboard the plane and did not learn otherwise until rescuers reached the couple.


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