A group of hunters rescued Gene Penaflor Saturday after the 72-year-old man spent 19 days in Mendocino National Forest in Northern California. Penaflor had been hunting with his partner on Sept. 24, but when the two men separated for a few hours, Penaflor fell and hit his head. The San Francisco man later said he woke up disoriented in heavy fog.

An initial search ended with bad weather and no trace of the missing man. His son Jeremy and a sheriff’s detective described how Penaflor survived until the search was resumed Saturday:

That night he built a fire and set up a makeshift shelter of leaves underneath and above him for warmth. He woke to more fog and zero visibility again the next morning, and on Wednesday afternoon, Penaflor saw a helicopter.

He put damp leaves on his fire to send a smoke signal, but the helicopter’s crew didn’t see him. Penaflor saw a helicopter the next day, and he tried again to flag it down with the same result, according to [Mendocino County Sheriff’s Detective] Porter.

“I asked him why he didn’t just walk back up the hill, and he said he didn’t have enough energy to hike back up,” Porter said. . . .

“He knew at some point he was going to die, but he figured he’d last as long as he could,” Porter said.

And survive Penaflor did, conserving what food he could kill and cook, keeping his nighttime fire’s embers hot under leaves during the day, conserving bullets and staying hydrated until he saw what he described as “an army of hunters” Saturday and flagged them down with smoke from his fire. They made a stretcher from tree branches and their coats, according to Porter, and carried him to safety. . . .

“It was hard on the family,” Jeremy said. “I knew my dad would do what he needed to do to survive, even if it meant eating squirrels or the occasional bug.”

“I had faith that my dad was still alive,” Jeremy said. “With the knowledge that he had, and what he knew how to do, 14 days was nothing to him. I think after 14 days, I would have freaked out.”

Ukiah Daily Journal

Penaflor was recuperating at the Ukiah Valley Medical Center on Monday.

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