PASADENA, Calif. (AP) — Fifteen hikers from a church group who failed to return from a day hike in the Southern California mountains were exhausted and losing daylight, so they decided to build a fire and wait until Monday morning, when a helicopter plucked them safely out of the wilderness.
The Los Angeles County sheriff's helicopter rescued the hikers — 11 adults and four teens — and they were driven to a nature center to be reunited with anxious family and friends.
Hiker Nancy Picado, 22, said the group became worn out after spending Sunday rappelling down waterfalls in the Eaton Canyon Natural Area, a popular hiking spot known for rescues at the base of the rugged San Gabriel Mountains, about 15 miles northeast of downtown Los Angeles.
"We were wet, we were tired, but we just decided that the best thing we could do is just stay there and rest," she said. "It was safer for us to just wait until morning."
Claudia Ortiz, who stood gingerly with one foot bandaged, appeared to have the only injury, but she said it happened during the helicopter rescue.
Altadena Mountain Rescue Team training officer James Moussally, who was part of the ground search, described the group as "canyoneers" who start high up in the canyon and work their way down by rappelling.
The group started with plenty of daylight ahead but its size likely made for slow going, Moussally said.
"It's not something you want to rush through," he said "There is safety involved. You want to take your time. ... I think it's a matter of maybe they weren't quite prepared for it to take as long as it did."
Moussally did not know the exact location where the helicopter crew spotted the group but estimated it would have taken them a couple more hours to exit the canyon.
Just before authorities announced the hikers had been spotted, family and friends who gathered at the search command post had a group hug.
"It was heartbreak to not know what had happened to them," said Anajancy Armenta, whose sister and brother-in-law were on the hike.
Someone on the trek called the local sheriff's station Sunday night and said the group was lost, Deputy Johnie Jones said. Deputies arrived at Eaton Canyon around 10 p.m. and found two relatives of hikers who reported receiving texts that said "help."
The group, which included some people who had done the hike before, was outfitted with backpacks, first-aid kits, extra clothing, food and water but did not expect to be in the wilderness all night, Jones said.
Members of the Seventh-day Adventist church in Huntington Park said the hikers had previously gone out as a group on treks in the same area.
Eaton Canyon is popular with hikers and also known for rescues.
Last summer, the U.S. Forest Service finally closed off access to the Upper Falls because people were ignoring warning signs and climbing unauthorized, steep, crumbling trails into Angeles National Forest, resulting in rescues and deaths.
At the time, the Forest Service said there were more than 60 rescues in the Upper Falls area alone in 2012, and there had been five deaths since 2011.
Moussally said he did not believe the group was in a restricted area.