The Searchers of G.I. Joe Search and Rescue

The OC group goes into the California wilderness to find the missing—and to honor a brother who was swept away

"Authorities think, 'Oh, it's just a body,'" says Victoria, a petite woman wearing cargo pants, black hiking boots and a button with Joe's picture on it. "But to a family, it's not just a body. It's a son, a daughter, a mother, a father. No one deserves to feel that pain."

At 8:30 a.m., someone announces over the walkie-talkies everyone is carrying that a team member has spotted a blue-and-yellow paddle wedged between a cluster of rocks in the river. It's a paddle that was used by Nguyen and Neacato. 

When Neacato's mother, Silvia, sees it, she cries. She squats down on a rock and gently touches the flowing water, staring out at the river that has no end in sight. The last time she saw her son was at his UCLA graduation ceremony, just a couple of days before the trip. "They didn't call me," she says, explaining that authorities didn't notify the Neacatos that Scott was missing until the day after the accident. "Nobody told me," she sobs.

The sun beams through the Sierra Nevadas and will pound down harder as the morning turns into noon. But the team still has a lot more ground to cover. 

When asked how long the group plans to be out there, Victoria responds without hesitation, "As long as it takes."

* * *

Joe Le was a quiet, easygoing 20-year-old who loved art, computers and the great outdoors. He had shaggy, side-swept hair, rectangular glasses and a sweet demeanor.

The son of Vietnamese immigrants, he was born in Northern California and grew up in Anaheim. He was studying art at Golden West College and planned on transferring to Cal State Fullerton. A class project required he paint a self-portrait; Le depicted himself as G.I. Joe, one of his favorite childhood characters.

Victoria says she and her brother were very close, despite the gap in age. "He loved to make others smile," she says. "I'm more go-go-go, while he could just sit back and enjoy life. His motto was 'Shut up and live.'" 

On April 1, Joe and one of his best friends, Brian Tran, planned to hike the east fork of the San Gabriel Mountains to Azusa's Bridge to Nowhere, a popular 9-mile river-chasing trip along an abandoned, flooded-out roadway. The wet winter caused the streams of water to swell to chest-deep levels, making the hike especially treacherous in the early spring. At around noon, Joe and Tran came to a rope strung across the icy rapids of the San Gabriel River. The river looked calm enough to cross. Le went first.

The current was deceptive. As he walked the line through the river, Joe struggled to hold on to the rope as rushing water knocked him off his feet and carried him downstream.

The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department launched a search, dispatching helicopters, firefighters and trained rescue teams, but scaled back the effort as the sun went down. "It's very, very difficult to search in the dark," explains Sergeant Joseph McDonald. "Unfortunately, if you don't find a person in a fast amount of time, it's going to be a body recovery, not a search for an alive person."

At 8:45 p.m., a Los Angeles County sheriff arrived at Victoria's doorstep in Anaheim and told her that Joe was missing. She went numb, and then became furious.

"I said, 'What do you mean he's missing?'" she recalls. "They told me he fell into the river. I said, 'He's not missing, then. He's in that river!'"

Victoria, who works as a forensic investigator with the Westminster Police Department, was appalled that she and her family weren't notified sooner. "I would assume that'd be the first thing they'd do," she says. "I asked, 'What have you been doing this whole time?'"

After the sheriff left, Victoria was overcome by a sense of determination. "I just kept thinking, 'I'm gonna find him. I'm gonna find my brother,'" she says.

She went to her computer and posted on Facebook: "I NEED YOUR HELP TO LOCATE JOE!" Victoria announced that she would be at the river at 5 the next morning. At 4 a.m., a group of strangers in hiking gear showed up at her house to join her.

The news of Joe's disappearance had exploded on the Internet during the night, with the Union of Vietnamese Student Associations (UVSA)—a national college organization with chapters at UC Irvine, Cal State Fullerton and Cal State Long Beach—sending out Victoria's plea and people hosting virtual prayer events for those who couldn't make it out to the river. "It shows there are still people out there who are compassionate," Victoria says.

At the site, a group of 33 combed through 7 miles of steep, rocky terrain, flipping over rocks, looking under logs and branches, and eventually venturing into the river. Some were avid hikers, but few, if any, had rescue training. During the search, they noticed a helicopter hovering overhead and some authorities standing on cliffs and looking down at the scene with binoculars, but they did not see any official search teams on ground or in the water. Authorities said they considered dispatching rescue divers, but the currents were too strong.

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13 comments
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Henxinsand

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mazesclarson
mazesclarson

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Long Hoang
Long Hoang

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Heavynle
Heavynle

If the professionals are so equipped and trained, why are they not in the water looking? If the "professional" did their job, maybe G.I. Joe Search and Rescue wouldn't have to go out there and risks their lives. With little training and equipment, they bravely lend a helping hand and expect nothing in return whereas the professionals get paid (with our tax dollars) yet sit around and watch families go search for their love ones. If it was your son you wouldn't say the same.

whatisgoodforu.com
whatisgoodforu.com

Please get your terminology correct when disparaging a large group of people.

Most firefighters, police, sheriff, etc. are paid public service employees. They are professionals, they get paid for performing their duties.

Most SAR personnel are volunteers that devote significant amounts of time, energy, and money in becoming trained and certified in Search and Rescue. They are utilized by the aforementioned agencies to assist in operations such as a swiftwater search, resuce, or recovery. The training is extensive for a reason, the last thing anyone wants to see during an operation are additional victims that need to be recovered due to a lack of training.

I applaud this group for their motivation, energy, and commitment but I question where they are focusing their efforts. There are many established organizations that can train them all to truly become assets in the field and mimize the probability that they too become victims, good intentions notwithstanding.

Itwister23
Itwister23

Remember not too long ago, on national news more than a dozen of Fire Fighters in east bay San Francisco standing and watching a man slowly drown and disapear in the ocean, because of no budget or what ever reason???? They are proffesionals. We should encourage them and need some PROFFESIONAL volunteer to train them. These people are good hearted.

anotherview
anotherview

I applaud the motivation of these citizens but I would question their judgement. Almost all SAR in California is done by volunteers, through law enforcement agencies that demand strict training and experience for a reason. Statistically most swiftwater fatalities are well-meaning, poorly trained would-be-rescuers. The reasons most SAR teams are cautious about recoveries in swiftwater conditions is not from a lack of compassion, as implied by the articles author, but a knowledge of the risk. Is it worth losing a living person in the effort to recover someone who has passed? As a write this hundreds of well trained, experienced SAR volunteers are gathering in Canada to mourn the loss of a SAR member lost during a training in swiftwater. These are volunteers too. Ones that have dedicated their time/energy/money to get the needed training to help those they have never met and even they sometimes find themselves giving the ultimate sacrifice. Unskilled volunteers will find these risks multiplied exponentially. I would encourage these folks to take the path of the far less media saturated world of established volunteer SAR. They will gain the training and experience to make wise decisions in the field and not put others at risk should they experience the unthinkable and need skilled, trained SAR individuals to come to their aid.

Noble motivation does not always translate to thoughtful, experienced behavior in the field. I hope they learn the lessons of the generations of rescuers that have gone before them, and not learn painful lessons the hard way.

Observer
Observer

I'm getting so tired of "professional" heroes. Train, train, train. Bring in helicopters. Buy equipment. More training.

You know what? People have been pulling people --- and bodies, sadly -- out of rivers for centuries. I'm not sure where you get your statistics, but I seriously it doubts to situations like this -- more likely, it's a mom going after a child or a friend jumping in for a friend right away. Those are emotional decisions, not like this group.

I admire the GI Joe group and think they need to continue their efforts. Common sense is a powerful tool -- let the "professionals" decide its too dangerous, or too expensive, or whatever, then just do it yourselves.

PCT1980
PCT1980

You're so tired? I hadn't thought it was so exhausting watching people train and risk their lives for others.... And common sense led people to cross rivers when they shouldn't and ignore signs that warned them of danger.

Michaelkite
Michaelkite

The only difference between volunteer professionals and volunteer amateurs is training. Let’s hope GI Joe gets some before they get hurt or hurt someone else. Just getting out there and “doing it yourself”, especially swift water rescue, is a recipe for disaster.

PCT1980
PCT1980

I remember Victoria Le's comments, as described by the media after the loss of her brother, were uncharitable but I think what she is currently doing is laudable. From what was described in the article the emphasis of her team seems to be search and not rescue. When they located the body of the drowning victim they didn't attempt an actual recovery but called in a trained Swift Water Rescue team.

Marie
Marie

Derrick Rush has also been swept away in the Kern River this week.

 
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