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Rangers Reportedly Ignored Men Clinging To Capsized Canoe In Icy Water

March 4, 1987

LANCASTER, Calif. (AP) _ Two U.S. Forest Service rangers drove away from a frigid lake after seeing four men clinging to a capsized canoe, and one of the men later drowned, the survivors and witnesses said.

The Forest Service said a preliminary investigation found that the rangers never realized there was an emergency.

The canoers capsized Monday a short distance from the shore of Elizabeth Lake. The survivors said the water was so cold they were unable to do more than hang on for nearly an hour.

Los Angeles County sheriff’s divers on Tuesday recovered a body identified by the coroner’s office as that of Robert Varrick, 24, of Lancaster. The other three men were treated for hypothermia because their body temperatures were as low as 80 degrees when they were rescued, county Fire Department paramedics said.

Melvin Sampson, 21, of Lancaster, and Daniel Vail, 27, of Quartz Hill were at Antelope Valley Medical Center, with Vail in fair condition and Sampson in good condition. Antonio Urdiales, 22, was reported in stabilized and improving condition at High Desert Hospital in Lancaster.

Sampson and Vail told reporters that after their canoe capsized, they saw two uniformed rangers in a Forest Service truck about 100 yards away. County firefighters later estimated the distance as half that.

″We called to them and told them we had an epileptic with us,″ Vail said Tuesday. ″That was Tony (Urdiales) He was on top of the overturned canoe. We were trying to keep him as calm as possible so he wouldn’t go into a seizure. We kept telling him to hold on.″

He said the rangers, a man and a woman, ″heard us plainly. They kind of waved their arms like ‘What can we do?’ and drove away.″

Cameron Caldwell, a local resident, said he saw the men beckon to the rangers. He said the rangers drove down to a ramp near the men and that the male ranger got out to ask what was wrong, and then drove off with the female ranger.

When he realized that no help was coming, he drove two miles to get help from a Los Angeles County fire station.

Caldwell, 20, of Lake Hughes, also told a private campground employee, Kenneth Gray, who provided a rowboat. Gray and county firefighter Jim Smalley pulled three of the men from the water.

Saugus District Ranger Mike Wickman said Tuesday that a preliminary investigation indicated two rangers were at the scene but ″there was no indication of an emergency at the time.″

Sampson said it is possible that the rangers did not realize the danger he and his friends were in because they were not far from shore and might be expected to swim to safety.

He said he tried to do that, but he was wearing heavy boots and the water was so cold he knew he couldn’t make it and swam back to the canoe.

″It was freezing,″ he said. ″I could barely move my fingers.″

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