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Man Survives 2 Days Pinned in Van Wreck

TIMES STAFF WRITER

For more than two days last weekend, 53-year-old sandal maker Lee Risler lay trapped, his arm pinned under the family van that had careened down a steep embankment off the San Gabriel River Freeway in Downey. Sirens passed on the road above, but no one stopped.

Then in a desperate act of survival, Risler reached for his pocketknife and began cutting at the wrist and fingers of his left hand, struggling to get free.

Risler didn’t succeed. But by chance, a Caltrans worker discovered his overturned vehicle about noon Monday and officials pulled Risler to safety--the survivor of an urban nightmare.

“This was a mess,” said Downey Fire Battalion Chief Chuck Seely. “This guy was definitely in desperation.”

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After cutting away trees and the van door, authorities rushed Risler to St. Francis Medical Center in Lynwood, where he underwent surgery for cuts on his hand, officials said. Otherwise, he suffered only minor cuts and bruises and was listed in stable condition, a hospital spokeswoman said.

News of Risler’s discovery brought gasps of elation from his wife and three children, who had been growing increasingly frantic after he failed to arrive at a craft show Saturday. Risler was driving from his High Desert home in Lucerne Valley to sell sandals at the Hermosa Beach event when the accident occurred about 3 a.m.

“He likes to get there early so he can be the first to set up,” said Bryn Risler, his wife of 20 years.

Bryn Risler said family members came later to the show and were perplexed that he wasn’t there. They walked around and around looking for him. They called the California Highway Patrol. Eventually, they had to go home without him.

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“People were thinking maybe he left the family,” she said. “But I knew he didn’t. I knew he was hurt.”

She said her husband has a “MacGyver"-like ingenuity and would never miss a craft show. She recounted how an old car of Risler’s caught fire while he drove to a show, prompting him to pull over and shovel dirt on the flames. He sold the wreckage to someone for $100 and rented a U-Haul truck, all within a few hours. Then when the rental’s transmission gave out, he continued undeterred: He simply rented another truck and got to the show.

Now Risler has a far more improbable story to tell. Caltrans worker Ben Sepulveda was sweeping the freeway shoulder just south of the Golden State Freeway when he saw broken glass on the side. As he got out of his sweeper to clean up the shards, he peered over the side and spied the overturned van about 50 feet below, wedged into some trees.

He scrambled down to it, and screamed, “Are you OK?”

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Risler’s legs were hanging out the passenger window. He screamed, “Help, help, help!”

Sepulveda said he ran to his van and radioed his nearby office. Soon, maintenance worker Joe Ochoa came and climbed down the slope to stay with Risler, who was calm but complained of a tremendous thirst.

Ochoa said Risler was covered by boxes of his sandals, which went flying when the van overturned, and his head was obscured. He said Risler’s left hand was trapped outside the van, between the door and some trees.

Risler reportedly told Ochoa: “I tried to amputate my arm because I’m trapped.”

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Said Seely, the battalion chief: “He did more damage to his arm than the accident.”

Highway Patrol spokeswoman Sylvia Santana said that investigators had not determined why Risler drove off the road in the first place, but it was possible he fell asleep at the wheel.

“He was lucky we didn’t have the cold weather we were having for a while,” she said. “He just had that will to live.”


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