Year of Loss and Survival

Times Staff Writer

In 2002, a 62-year-old man in a broken sailboat survived an astonishing four months adrift in the Pacific Ocean, drinking rainwater and roasting seagulls on a jury-rigged grill.

Meanwhile, three condor chicks, hatched in the back country of Ventura County and monitored by human experts who left food out for their parents, never made it past 6 months of age. One died from a stomach full of metal scraps and bottle caps.

Whether Southern Californians, human and otherwise, were lost at sea, up a tree (literally), succumbing to trashy nests, or lost in the wilderness, their stories ran like verses of an epic poem on the environment. There were tales of survival and death, and battles over trees, still in progress.

John Quigley, an environmental activist from Pacific Palisades, climbed a venerable oak near Santa Clarita on Nov. 1 and has yet to come down. Los Angeles County officials initially told a developer it could remove the tree to widen a canyon road for a new subdivision in the area.

When the plan was disclosed, Quigley -- who has done this before -- was recruited by activists to tree-sit until the plan was scotched. In the eight weeks since he began his protest, he has, at least temporarily, thwarted the plan and turned the oak into a shrine of sorts.

Residents, schoolchildren, sympathizers and celebrities all come by to pay homage to the tree and its protector. Actress Rene Russo has visited and added her voice to the protest. Actor-environmentalist Ed Begley Jr. scaled the tree to talk with Quigley.

Quigley and activists refused to accept a plan to relocate the tree, contending the move would kill it. They want the road rerouted. Recently, an engineer proposed a road that would split around the tree, thus saving it and allowing the road to be widened.

"It's difficult to describe the feeling of keeping something alive, especially something as old and beautiful as this tree," said Quigley, 42, from his perch, where he is brought food and his mail from around the world .

Clothing company Patagonia sent him cold-weather gear. As he spoke recently over a cell phone, he wore a couple of layers of thermal underwear, a shirt and two jackets.

"There's been a physical and a financial toll -- I haven't worked in two months," said Quigley, who calls himself an environmental educator. His boss and his longtime girlfriend have been understanding of his absence, he says.

"I have no complaints. This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience," Quigley says. He plans to leave his perch in January, to be replaced by someone else determined to save the tree.

In Rancho Palos Verdes, homeowner Marina Simes couldn't save her trees from drastic pruning. As far as she's concerned, they were ambushed when she wasn't there to protect them.

Simes, 93, came home one day late last year to find her 60-foot-tall pine, pepper and cherry trees had been cut back to rooftop level. She had planted the trees 40 years ago with her late husband.

While Simes loved the wild, park-like vista of the trees, her neighbors, Eva and Thomas Wildey, had long chafed at the way the trees obscured their spectacular view of the ocean. So the Wildeys allegedly sent tree-trimmers over to solve the problem.

Simes was so distraught by their actions that she recently filed suit for emotional distress, trespassing and "injury" to her 27 trees. State law dating back to the days of wood poaching in the 1800s allows property owners to collect triple the monetary value of trees maliciously damaged.

Interestingly, the Wildeys probably could have used a much newer Rancho Palos Verdes ordinance preventing the impairment of views to compel Simes to trim her trees.

Trees weren't the only element of the landscape that stirred passions and legal action.

A Santa Fe Springs man shot an opossum three times with a bow after it wandered into his backyard last March and acted aggressively toward his family, he said.

Kirk Broomall, 41, thought he had killed the animal, but the next day -- Easter Sunday, as it turned out -- a neighbor spotted the animal walking along a wall, its body pierced by arrows. Broomall then finished the opossum off with a shovel and pipe, but not before the neighbor had taken pictures and called animal control authorities.

Broomall, who had two previous violent run-ins with opossums, was charged with misdemeanor animal cruelty, raising the question of when killing an animal is malicious and when it is pest-control. A jury found him not guilty, deciding his act was objectionable but his intent was not malicious.

Since then, Broomall says, he hasn't harmed any of the opossums that visit his property daily. "Usually they don't bother you," he said. "I haven't had any aggressive ones."

The year's most unusual story of surviving the elements had to be that of dogged sailor Richard Van Pham, a Vietnamese immigrant who drifted for four months and 2,500 miles from Long Beach almost to Costa Rica before being rescued in September by a Navy frigate.

In a drama rivaling the film "Cast Away," Pham told of setting out for Catalina Island when a storm broke his 26-foot sailboat's mast and disabled the auxiliary motor and radio.

He drank rainwater, caught fish and ate turtles and seagulls he roasted on a makeshift grill. His story so captivated the Navy crew members who found him that they pooled money to help him start over.

They weren't the only ones. Clothing, plane fare, equipment, even a new boat, were showered upon Pham -- who seemed more adrift on land than on sea. He told rescuers and reporters that a devastating car accident 10 years ago had damaged his memory and required a long recovery that left him penniless.

He forgot to mention that he also had been arrested three times -- but never charged -- over the previous 17 years on suspicion of aggravated battery and marijuana possession. None of that deterred the charming and gracious Pham's new admirers.

Amgen scientist Erwin Freund gave him a 25-foot boat. And Jerry Pool, owner of Larry Dudley Yacht Sales in Ventura Harbor, let Pham dock the new boat there for a month. But Pham remained a mystery.

"He would do things on the boat then disappear for three or four days," said Pool. "He was really grateful. I think he would have stayed with me and helped out with boat deliveries, but I just don't move that many boats around." Pham left Ventura Harbor on Oct. 31.

None of the people who helped him have heard from Pham since. He told Freund he might go to Long Beach after leaving Ventura. He told someone else he might go to San Pedro. He has no telephone and keeps only a post office box.

"This guy has totally dropped off the radar screen," said Michael Harris, editor of the Log, a recreational boating newspaper.

"He's happiest following his own schedule," said Freund. "Richard's dream is to go to Hawaii."

No year in Los Angeles would be complete without someone stumbling out of the Angeles National Forest with a harrowing tale of survival.

Luis Cruz, 26, a Los Angeles Valley College student and part-time care provider, spent 12 days marooned in the forest in August after his SUV broke down at a campsite.

He had started walking, but fell off a cliff into a wooded canyon, breaking his back and dislocating a shoulder. He popped his shoulder back into place but could only crawl. He ate grass, dry leaves and berries. When he ran out of water, he drank his own urine. He encountered a bear that seemed more scared of him than he was of it. He crawled for miles before he was rescued.

Afterward, he faced back surgery and physical therapy.

"Thank God, I'm doing better," says Cruz, a born-again Christian who lives in the San Fernando Valley and is neither in school nor working at the moment. "Christ loves you," he said, "and I love you too."

Unlike Cruz and Pham, three offspring of California's much-nurtured condors didn't survive the wide expanses.

The three turkey-sized fledglings -- the first condors hatched in the wild in 18 years -- were 5 and 6 months old when they died in the fall, dashing hopes for the start of a new generation of wild condors this year.

Two of the chicks appeared to have died of "short-term starvation," according to Bruce Palmer, coordinator of the California Condor Recovery Program for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. A necropsy on the third revealed it had gobbled 12 bottle caps, shards of glass, electrical fixtures, screws and washers -- probably litter left behind by birds that had previously visited the cave where the chick was born, Palmer said.

With such misfortune and a host of environmental hazards, California condors have had a tough time in the wild.

"It's greatly disappointing," Palmer says of the chicks' deaths, "but it's not going to affect anything negatively. We will be changing our feeding regimes, so we will have surplus food available. We will also monitor nesting more closely."

Despite the setbacks, Palmer is optimistic.

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