Cloe Fields and Christian Zelada were in shock after climbing out of their Hyundai Elantra that, moments earlier, was about 300 feet higher on the Angeles Crest Highway. After pulling over to let another vehicle pass last week, their car had slipped on some gravel, sending them on a terrifying free fall. As they looked around the canyon they’d landed in — shaken up but not seriously injured — all they could think about was how to get help in a remote area with no cellphone service.
But when Zelada located Fields’s shattered iPhone 14 in the dirt, they learned their rescue had already begun. A new Apple feature had detected the crash and alerted emergency services.
About 40 minutes after believing their lives were over, Fields, 23, and Zelada, 24, were in a helicopter on the way to a Pasadena, Calif., hospital.
“We do have moments where we’re like, ‘Holy [crap], that was the size of a football field that we fell from,” Fields told The Washington Post. “But I don’t think it’s fully set in for us.”
Fields and Zelada have driven on the Los Angeles County highway often to view the surrounding Angeles National Forest. After meeting in a Pasadena City College math class four years ago, the two had bonded over their love of the outdoors.
Fields, a freelance video editor, and Zelada, a Honda sales consultant, were off work Dec. 13 and decided to drive their favorite route after enjoying breakfast bowls. While Zelada navigated the two-lane highway on a sunny afternoon, a car honked in hopes of passing them. But when Zelada pulled over into uneven gravel on the side of the road, the car lost traction. The new Hyundai turned 180 degrees before dropping off the mountainside into the forest’s Monkey Canyon, the couple said.
During the 15-second fall through trees, Fields hyperventilated while Zelada gripped the steering wheel and repeated “We’re okay.” Both believed they would soon be dead. Zelada had heard stories about fatal falls from the road, but he never imagined it was something that would happen to him.
“We had a one-in-a-million chance to survive,” Zelada said.
The two were still breathing when the upside-down car’s nose smacked the ground near a creek. A tree trunk blocked the door by the driver’s seat, Zelada said, so they both escaped through the passenger’s side. They had scrapes on their faces but, on first inspection, no broken bones.
In search of help, Zelada suggested hiking the forest. Fields sought a means of communication — oblivious that her phone, which she had purchased about two weeks earlier, was functioning.
Fields said that when Zelada found her phone about 10 yards from the crash site, the screen read “It looks like you’ve been in a crash,” with the option to swipe to conduct an emergency communication. Emergency SOS that can connect via satellite comes standard with the iPhone 14 and iPhone 14 Pro, per Apple’s website.
The phone had alerted emergency services with an automated message when it detected the crash. Fields was then able to use the SOS technology to text emergency services with more information.
After dispatching a helicopter from roughly 18 miles away, the rescue team located Fields and Zelada a half-hour later. Even as she was being hoisted to safety, Fields said she struggled to remain calm, until she heard the reassuring words of a firefighter: “You’re alive.”
Sgt. John Gilbert, the coordinator for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department’s Montrose search-and-rescue team, told The Post that Zelada and Fields were lucky.
“When we have vehicles that go over the side, in that particular part of the roadway … we’re normally dealing with a fatality,” he said.
Gilbert said his team had been alerted by the new Apple feature three times before, though rescuers weren’t needed in the earlier instances, which included an accidental activation and a routine car crash.
But Gilbert knew the coordinates from Fields’s phone were inside the canyon, meaning the phone’s owner was probably in danger. Without the alert from the phone, Fields and Zelada may have been stranded, Gilbert said.
“It’s going to be a game changer,” Gilbert said. “There are many incidents where we’re an hour to an hour-and-a-half behind the original emergency before we’re even notified.”
The helicopter flew Fields and Zelada to Huntington Hospital in Pasadena, where they said X-rays and CT scans displayed no major injuries. After a four-hour wait, Zelada’s father drove the couple to their home in Glendale.
“We’re just thankful to live another day,” Fields said, “and continue to find our purpose.”