GOLD BEACH, Ore. — Three mushroom pickers lost six nights in the rugged forest of southwest Oregon with no food considered eating their dog, and used the screen on their dead cellphone and the blade of a sheath knife to flash a signal at the helicopter pilot who found them.
Dan Conne said Sunday from his hospital bed in Gold Beach that he and his wife and son spent the nights huddled in a hollow log with nothing to eat, and considered sacrificing their pit bull, Jesse, for food.
“She’s that good a dog, she’d have done it, too,” Conne said.
A volunteer helicopter pilot looking outside the search area Saturday spotted Dan and Belinda Conne, both 47, along with 25-year-old Michael, on the edge of a deep ravine in tall timber. They were about 10 miles northeast of the town of Gold Beach, roughly 330 miles south-southwest of Portland.
“The wife had the Blackberry and I had the knife,” Dan Conne told The Associated Press. “I kept flashing. The wife said, ‘You’re blinding them.’ But I wanted to make sure they seen us. I wasn’t taking no chance.”
The three had given up hope and thought they were going to die when rescuers came.
“None of us thought we were coming out of there,” he said.
While lost, the cold and hungry family could see search helicopters and airplanes flying low and slow overhead, but they couldn’t get the pilots’ attention through the thick, coastal forest vegetation.
When they were found, the Connes were just five football fields from a road, and a mile from their Jeep.
The three were airlifted to a Gold Beach hospital, where they stayed overnight.
Dan Conne hurt his back, and Belinda Conne had hypothermia, Curry County Sheriff John Bishop said. All three were hungry, and enjoyed their potato soup and sandwiches at the hospital.
Belinda and Dan Conne were discharged Sunday. Their son, who suffered frostbite, hypothermia and a sprained ankle, remained in the hospital for more treatment.
The family was spotted by Jackson County Commissioner John Rachor, spending his first day searching for them in his own helicopter with Curry County Sheriff’s Lt. John Ward.
Rachor had been up two hours and decided to go outside the search area, heading uphill from where the family parked their Jeep, instead of down.
“We couldn’t find anything in the obvious places, so we decide to go to the not-obvious places,” he said. “I kind of think outside the box on these things sometimes, and it pays off.”
Rachor is the same pilot who found a San Francisco family lost in a snowstorm in 2006 just 35 miles from where he found the Connes. In 2006, Rachor flew Kati Kim and her two young daughters to safety after spotting them near their car. James Kim died of hypothermia trying to hike out for help.
On Saturday, Rachor saw a movement on the edge of a deep ravine in tall timber. A man in tan bib overalls was waving his arms. Ward marked the spot on his GPS and called the Coast Guard for a helicopter to winch the family out. He also called a nearby ground team to give them immediate aid, then flew back to Gold Beach for fuel.
“The searchers were with us within 20 minutes of the first copter that found us,” Dan Conne said. “There must have been nine or 10 of them. They just kept coming out of that brush. lt was just a real happy feeling, ‘cause we knew we wasn’t going to die out there.”
The Coast Guard lifted Michael and Dan Conne out first, then returned for Belinda. The dog walked out with searchers.
Dan Conne said the three got lost Sunday after going back for a second load of hedgehog and black trumpet mushrooms, which they sell to a local buyer. It was Belinda’s day off from her motel maid job.
They left their four Chihuahua dogs at the fifth-wheel trailer at the campground where they live, and drove to first one spot, then returned for peanut butter sandwiches and went to a new spot they were not familiar with.
In the heat of the afternoon, they left their jackets at the end of a gravel road. Their last meal was a peanut butter sandwich each on Sunday.
When they didn’t come home the first night, the camp host alerted authorities. Searchers hit the ground Monday. Wednesday, searchers found the Connes’ Jeep.
The Connes spent the first night in rain, sheltering under a pile of brush. The second day, they built a lean-to, but it fell down. Heeding the advice of another mushroom picker, Michael Conne hiked uphill to try to see where they were, but returned cold, wet, and with no better idea where they were. Trying to find their way out downhill, they discovered a hollow log they could all squee ze into, and they stayed there, covering the opening with bark and hiking downhill to a creek to fill plastic bags with water. When it rained, they tried to plug the leaks with bits of wood.
“It was pretty tight in there,” Dan Conne said. “I’m sure a bear would have been real comfortable in there.”
They were never able to start a fire, having no matches or lighters.
“Every other time we been out there, every one of us had lighters, except this time,” Dan Conne said. “Rubbing sticks together? That don’t work. Slamming rocks together? Only on TV.
“There was a lot of debating, back and forth, whether to stay or go. Mikey couldn’t walk. If we had to leave him, that wasn’t an option. Belinda was down. I could barely walk. We just didn’t know which way to go.”
Searchers found a trail and a few hopeful clues along the way: a can of Pepsi, mushroom-picking buckets, a few pieces of clothing. But not the people they were searching for.
At one point, the Connes spotted a search helicopter close enough for them to see Bishop riding inside, but their attempt to signal went unseen.
After getting out of the hospital, Dan Conne picked up Jesse and the Chihuahuas, which had been cared for at the animal shelter after the rescue. Jesse jumped and danced around at seeing him again.
“I don’t think we could have done it,” Belinda Conne said of eating their pet. “I probably would have starved to death first.”
Dan Conne said he tried to eat a hedgehog mushroom while in the forest but found it “nasty.” He gave away the mushrooms he collected.
“I don’t ever want to see one of these again,” he said.
Associated Press writer Nigel Duara in Portland contributed to this report.