GOLD BEACH, Ore. — Three mushroom pickers lost six nights in the rugged forest of southwest Oregon used their dead cellphone and 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 dog Jesse for food before they were found.
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 several miles outside the community 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.”
He said 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.
Until their rescue, the cold and hungry family had been unable to signal search helicopters flying low and slow overhead.
The three were airlifted to a Gold Beach hospital, where Curry County Sheriff John Bishop spoke with them at an emergency room. He said the Connes told him they could see search helicopters just a few hundred feet above them while they were lost but had nothing to signal them with through the thick, coastal forest vegetation.
Bishop said Daniel Conne suffered a back injury, Belinda Conne had hypothermia, and their son had a sprained foot and minor frostbite. All three also were dehydrated and hungry.
“They just got turned around,” Bishop said. “They sought some shelter in a hollowed-out tree and basically they stayed in the same place. But it was heavy vegetation where they were.”
Bishop said the three were “remarkably in pretty good shape,” given the amount of time they spent outside. He said they likely could have survived for two or three more days in the area, where fresh water is plentiful but food is scarce. The weather was mostly clear, with temperatures in the 40s and 50s.
Bishop said the family was spotted by Jackson County Commissioner John Raschor, who was searching for them in his own helicopter with Curry County Sheriff’s Lt. John Ward.
Raschor 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, Raschor 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.
When dawn broke Saturday, Bishop said searchers entered the woods without much hope.
“We were sort of getting ready to go into body-recovery mode,” he said.
The ordeal began last Sunday when the three went out looking for hedgehog mushrooms, an orange-topped fungus prized by mushroom hunters for its sweet and nutty flavor. The three had been living in a trailer at a campsite after leaving Oklahoma for Oregon last summer.
Dusk fell during the family’s hunt. They started to return to their Jeep but couldn’t agree on directions.
“Pretty quickly, they found they were lost,” Bishop said.
The family found a forest road next to a river bank and huddled together with their dog, a pit bull-terrier mix.
Search parties were dispatched Tuesday, when their campsite manager realized the Connes hadn’t returned. The Jeep was found on a logging road Wednesday, along with two small dogs and the family’s jackets.
Searchers found a trail and a few hopeful clues along the way: a can of Pepsi, mushroom-picking buckets, a few pieces of clothing.
Bishop said Daniel Conne told him he had a sinking feeling every day the family wasn’t found. Daniel Conne would watch the search helicopter pass but was unable to get their attention.
“They said, ‘You were right above us,’” Bishop said.
When the family was finally found Saturday, they were only 200 yards from the nearest group of searchers.
The search had focused on a 4-square-mile area. Bishop said the family was in the search area but likely kept moving, making the search for them more difficult.
“We were actually right near them all three days” of the search, Bishop said. In the area’s canyons, “you think people can hear you, but they can’t.”
The search involved three Southern Oregon counties and one California county.
After being spotted by Raschor and Ward, the Connes were transported by a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter to Curry General Hospital in Gold Beach. A nursing supervisor said Saturday afternoon the three were in a doctor’s care and were unavailable for comment.
At the emergency room, Bishop said the Connes were “very thankful for the rescue” and were able to eat solid food.
People frequently get lost or stranded in the area where the Connes went missing — rugged country in the Klamath Mountains riddled with a maze of logging roads.
Joe Dykes, who works at the Huntley Park campsite where the family was staying, said Belinda and Daniel Conne arrived at the campsite in July after moving there from Oklahoma. Their son arrived later.
Belinda Conne works as a housekeeper at the Jot’s Resort, where motel owner Virginia McKinney said the Connes were preparing to rent a home in Gold Beach before the disappearance.
McKinney said Belinda told her she always wanted to live on the Oregon coast, and finally left Oklahoma last year with the intention of settling down.