Off a Cliff and Into the Ocean: A Survival Story

Those cliff drives along California’s Central Coast are certainly gorgeous to look at. But driving those thin roads along those steep overhangs is another thing altogether. The roads don’t just look scary; they’re literally life-threatening. Take the story of a young woman named Angela Hernandez, for one.

Angela Hernandez / Big Sur California / Wrecked Car / Chelsea Moore, Chad Moore.
Source: San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office

One day in the summer of 2018, the 23-year-old was driving her white 2011 Jeep down Highway 1 in the Big Sur area. While she does remember swerving out of the way to avoid hitting a small animal, she doesn’t remember much of what happened next. She doesn’t remember plummeting off the cliff nor the crash landing.

A Week of a Living Nightmare

Hernandez couldn’t recall hitting her head, fracturing her ribs and collar bone, or losing air from her lungs. But she does remember waking up at the bottom of the cliff, trapped inside her SUV in the Pacific Ocean. The following seven days became a week of ultimate survival – a week she would never forget.

A portrait of Angela Hernandez.
Angela Hernandez. Source: San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office

Miraculously, she lived to tell her tale, and she told it by means of a Facebook post not long after she was found and rescued. In her post that began with a “Trigger Warning,” Hernandez began describing the nightmare she had lived for an entire week.

As an Animal Stepped Out Onto the Road

“The past week has been unlike anything I’ve ever experienced in my entire life,” she posted. What became an absolute nightmare actually began as a simple – though beautiful – drive through California’s Big Sur on July 6, 2018.

An image of the car after crashing off the cliff.
Source: CNN News

Around noon, she was in the final half of her drive home to Southern California from Oregon. She was passing through Big Sur when a small animal stepped out onto the road. Naturally, she swerved to avoid hitting it, which caused her to lose control of the car. “I don’t really remember much of the fall,” she wrote. “They say I fell somewhere around 250 feet.”

Off the Cliff and Into the Ocean

After lunging off the cliff, she landed at the bottom where the ocean meets a rocky beach – one that’s isolated from the cars driving above it. “The only thing I really remember after that was waking up,” she wrote. Suddenly aware of the fact that she had driven off the cliff, she realized she was still in the car.

An aerial view of the car after driving off the cliff.
Source: CBS News

Terrifyingly, she started feeling water rise over her knees. “My head hurt and when I touched it, I found blood on my hands.” By then, the jeep’s power was off, and every window was closed. From there, things happened very fast.

Making It to the Shore

Hernandez then took off her seat belt and found a multi-tool that she kept near her front seat. “I started hitting the driver-side window with it. Every bone in my body hurt.” The one thing racing through her mind, she recalled, was her sister, Isabel, whose name she immediately started yelling.

An image of the wrecked car by the shore.
Source: 9 & 10 News

Eventually, Hernandez managed to break out of the car and enter the water. She swam to the shore, and, after hitting the sand, she passed out. She has no idea how long she slept for, but when she woke up it was still daylight.

As Reality Set In

“It was only then that I had finally realized what had happened,” Hernandez said. As soon as she stood up she felt a huge pain in her shoulders, hips, back, and thighs. Looking around her, all she could see were rocks, ocean, and a cliff that she knew she would never be able to look over.

A dated photo of Hernandez sitting in her car.
Source: Pinterest

Her car, which wasn’t too far from her, was now half washed up on shore with the roof ripped off of it. When she looked down at her feet, she noticed her shoes were gone.

Entering Survival Mode

Remembering she had a gallon of water inside the jeep, she tried getting into the car, but she wasn’t able to. The last thing she wanted at that point was to remain in the jeep. But that’s what happened; she had to live in survival mode for the next seven days.

A photo of Hernandez after being rescued.
Source: CNN News

In her recollection, or lack thereof, the following few days were a blur. She would walk up and down the beach looking for any sign of another human being. She would climb on rocks to avoid the sharp sand and have to walk along the shore to avoid the hot rocks.

All She Needed Was One Person

All the while, she was shoeless, with only hole-ridden socks to protect her feet. Her jeans were also ripped to shreds. She found a high spot that she was able to climb to and retreated there for most of the time. The frustrating thing was that she could see cars driving across the cliff.

A video of the couple who found Angela Hernandez.
Source: YouTube

She thought if she yelled loud enough, at least one person would hear her. All she wanted was to get back home to her family, and all she needed was for one person to notice her. She stayed out on that high point every day until the sun grew unbearable.

Sunburnt, Hungry, and Dehydrated

When the heat was too much, Hernandez slid back down to the shore to find some shade. After three days, her clothes were completely tattered, and her socks were barely socks anymore. She could start feeling the effects of dehydration.

A dated photo of Angela Hernandez.
Angela Hernandez. Source: Pinterest

Sunburned, hungry, and incredibly thirsty, she was fearing the worst. Luckily for Hernandez, she was a clever girl and found a way to get water. She made her way back to her jeep to look for anything she could use. What she found was a 10-inch black hose that had fallen off the jeep during the crash.

Her Daily Routine

The hose fit in the front pocket of her sweater, so she kept it there the whole time. She walked down the beach, further than before, until she heard a dripping sound. She noticed a huge patch of moss with water dripping off of it.

A general view of the car by the rocks.
Source: KATU

She caught the water in her hand, joyous to see that it was fresh water! So, she collected as much as she could in the hose and drank from it for what was probably an hour. She developed a daily ritual, where she would walk up and down the beach, looking for new high grounds.

Drink, Yell, Sleep, Repeat

She would scream “help” at the top of her lungs and collect fresh water falling from the top of the cliffs. By nightfall, she would look for the highest point she could climb to fall asleep before the tide would rise. But every morning, she awoke soaked in sea mist and sit there as the sun rose.

Hernandez poses for a portrait after an interview.
Angela Hernandez. Source: YouTube

“It would be a lie to say that things got easier as the days passed. They never did.” Meanwhile, above her, authorities were searching for the young woman who was reported missing as she was making her way from Oregon to California.

Meanwhile, She Was Reported Missing

The Monterey County Sheriff’s Office stated that Hernandez was last seen on surveillance on July 6, driving down Highway 1 in the Big Sur area. John Thornburg, a public information officer for the sheriff’s office, reported that heavy fog from the coast may have made it difficult for first responders to spot her.

An image of a rescue team searching for Hernandez.
Source: YouTube

But Hernandez was there all right, agonizingly watching as cars whizzed by on the road. She said that songs she hadn’t heard in years were playing on repeat in her head. By day, she dreamed of the food she would eat once back home.

The Night Before Her Rescue

By night, she dreamed of being rescued. She said she imagined what the face of the person who would eventually find her would look like. It turned out that Hernandez’s dream did come true, but in the form of two angelic faces.

Images of Hernandez rescue at night.
Source: ABC 7 News

Hernandez recalled that last morning on the beach being “an especially good one.” She had woken up in the middle of the night due to her shoulder pain and noticed the big dipper in the sky. She walked out to her usual spots, noticing things “a little bit differently.”

No, She Wasn’t Hallucinating

She then fell asleep between some boulders and let the sand cover her hair. When she finally woke up, she saw a woman walking across the shore. Naturally, Hernandez thought she was dreaming again, or hallucinating. When she understood that the woman was in fact real, she jumped up.

A photo of Hernandez during her rescue.
Source: YouTube

“HEEELLLPPPPP!” she screamed out as she ran over to her. The woman was with a man, and to Hernandez, it looked like the pair couldn’t believe their eyes. The man and woman acted quickly – she ran down the beach and up a trail to find help while the man helped Hernandez and gave her water.

Like Two Angels

“I couldn’t believe that they were even real,” Hernandez related. “I couldn’t believe that we had finally found each other.” Hernandez’s saving grace came in the form of this married couple, Chad and Chelsea Moore, who loved the ocean and happened to be scouting out some fishing spots.

A still of Chelsea and Chad during an interview.
Source: KSBY

That’s when they came across the destroyed, crumpled up jeep. Chelsea later recalled that there were no “signs of people or blood or anything,” but her husband still searched for bodies. But it looked like there wouldn’t have been any survivors, given the state of the jeep.

Hidden Between the Rocks

The couple walked along the beach, collecting items that – little did they know – belonged to Hernandez. Then, they saw her hidden in the rocks. “Angela was right there in the rocks, just looked like hell,” Chad later told a reporter.

Chelsea tells how they found Angela.
Source: KSBY

“But she was happy at the same time. She was happy to see us.” When she told them that the jeep was hers, they “panicked,” Chelsea said. “Like ‘Oh my god, you were in that car we just saw and you’re alive.’” Soon enough, a rescue team came to put an end to Hernandez’s week-long nightmare.

A Family Reunion and a List of Injuries

First responders roped down to her, treated her at the bottom of the cliff, and then hauled her back up from the beach. She was then taken by helicopter to a hospital and treated for her injuries.

A general view of Highway 1 in the Big Sur area.
Source: Miami Herald

Finally, she was reunited with her family. Then she learned just how bad her injuries really were. She was told that she had suffered a brain hemorrhage, fractured four ribs and collarbone, had a lung collapsed, and ruptured blood vessels in both eyes.

A Bigger Purpose

At the end of the day, Hernandez declared in her Facebook post that none of her injuries mattered. “I feel like I have everything I’ve ever wanted. I’m sitting here in the hospital, laughing with my sister until she makes broken bones hurt.”

A dated picture of Hernandez posing next to her white 2011 Jeep.
Angela Hernandez. Source: Pinterest

She also shared how she met “some of the most beautiful human beings that I think I’ll ever meet in my entire life.” Her “unique and terrifying” experience made her truly believe that there’s a bigger purpose for her in life. She concluded her post with: “I don’t know, you guys, life is incredible.”

The Beachcombers Recount the Event

Chelsea Moore recalled telling Hernandez that she’s here for a reason — “and we were there for a reason.” Chad added, “I can’t believe you’re alive, Angela… You’re a hero. That’s unreal. You made it.” The couple spoke later about how they found Hernandez.

A picture of Chelsea by the beach.
Chelsea Moore. Source: Pinterest

A self-described beachcomber, Chelsea said that she and Chad were out on one of their beachcombing/fishing missions, when they spotted the car bumper. It then led them to find the wrecked Jeep with no one in it. Still, they jotted down the license plate to show authorities.

They Were Sure No One Survived

Scattered around the area were other items, like a poster for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Ohio. “In my head, I thought that maybe someone had died, and we would give these items to the next of kin,” Chelsea admitted. “We both agreed that there weren’t survivors.”

Chad and Chelsea speak during a televised interview.
Source: KION

When they finally came upon Hernandez, they were completely shocked, as was Hernandez herself. But she was more ecstatic than anything and told them how they were the first people she had seen in days – how many days exactly she didn’t know.

She Was a Mess

Adding to the Moores’ bewilderment was how Hernandez looked: she had two black eyes and burst blood vessels in her eyes. “Her clothes were in tatters. Her socks were in scraps” Chelsea recalled. “She was very wet.”

Hernandez and Moore pose for a picture holding Hernandez’ Jeep plate.
Angela Hernandez, Chelsea Moore. Source: CBS News

Hernandez explained how at high tide there’s no beach – that she would be sleeping and wake up at night with waves smacking her. As soon as Chelsea ran up the cliff for help and brought back some food and clothing, Hernandez relaxed.

Naming Her Future Kids After Them

Hernandez chose to eat a peanut butter granola bar as her first “meal” in a week. They wrapped her in blankets and basically tried to keep her comfortable and talking. It took a few hours until the rescue team arrived.

A portrait of Hernandez at home.
Angela Hernandez. Source: Pinterest

Later that night, when Hernandez was in the hospital, the couple spoke to her on the phone. “She told us she wants to name her kids after us,” Chelsea shared. “We’re like equally in awe of each other. It’s kind of cool.” Considering the fact that they saved her life, it seems like a fitting homage to the couple.

A Baby Is the Lone Survivor of 1999’s Big Sur Crash

As it turns out, Big Sur has been the location of other unfortunate crashes. Back in February 1999, a family took an accidental plunge off the cliff. While the parents didn’t survive, the baby on board did. Their car was actually almost twice as high up as Hernandez’s when she drove off the side.

A general view of the highway in Big Sur.
Photo by Camerique/ClassicStock/Getty Images

Baby Tania’s parents were about 450 feet up when the car went off. Searchers later found a straw crucifix on the coast that had fallen out of their car. The 16-month-old’s rescuer handed her the cross when he discovered she was the lone survivor of the tragic crash.

The Car Was No Longer Behind Them

“She ignored it at first,” said Toby Rowland-Jones, the man who handed her the cross, “but then she clutched on to it. When she got in the helicopter, she was still clutching it.” Tania’s parents, Berenice and Marcial Isidra, had been driving along Highway 1, following Berenice’s sister.

An image of a straw crucifix.
Source: Etsy

The cars were heading north for Salinas when the sister, Columba Carrasco, realized her sister’s family was no longer behind her. It was somewhere south of Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. She had no idea what had happened to them.

Thank God for the Car Seat

She didn’t see the car behind her swerve across the road and tumble more than halfway down the 750-foot cliff, landing upside down on a boulder above the surf. The couple were flung out of the 1988 Hyundai and killed instantly.

A general view of the cliff.
Source: The Tribune

Luckily for Tania, who was strapped into an infant car seat, she was kept in one piece while trapped in the flattened wreckage. Columba and her husband, Ignacio, pulled their car over and simply waited for her sister and brother-in-law to emerge from the road’s curves.

No Signs – Nothing

“She was really worried, she felt something was wrong,” Ignacio said of his wife. “I thought they were maybe ahead of us.” She and Bernice were very close; they shared a home in Grover Beach. The crash literally came out of nowhere.

A view of the road at the highway.
Source: The Tribune

There were no signs of a mishap – no skid marks, no broken railing – nothing that would indicate an accident. But it was definitely strange that the car was no longer behind them and nowhere to be found, so the Carrascos turned around and drove back a few miles.

Not a Word

Completely unaware of the fact that the car had plunged off the cliff, the Carrascos decided to drive ahead to an aunt’s house in Salinas. Maybe, somehow, Bernice and Marcial managed to get ahead of them and were waiting for them at their destination.

A general view of the cliff in Big Sur.
Source: Wikipedia

Once at the aunt’s house, and when no call came, the couple decided to head home early. They retraced their route down Highway 1. North of Grimes Point, when they came upon the police and a team of rescue workers who had stopped traffic.

Her Heart Sank

“I asked them what was wrong,” Carrasco recalled. “They said six hours ago, a car went off the cliff. When they told me, I knew it was them.” That’s when her heart sank. A pair of rescuers, Toby Rowland-Jones and Paul Johnson had roped down the cliff after a resident of Big Sur noticed the car.

An image of a police siren.
Photo by Thinkstock/ Getty Images

They first found the father’s body between the road and the flattened car. Johnson then searched for other victims while Rowland-Jones looked inside the vehicle, expecting to find another dead body.

A Heartbreaking Find

That’s when Rowland-Jones found his face inches from a quiet baby girl, who was hanging upside down from the straps of her car seat. She had been in that position for close to five hours. “When she looked at me, she started crying,” Rowland-Jones recounted.

An image of water hitting the rocks by a cliff.
Source: WILX

It took about 20 minutes for both men to pry open the car and get just enough space to reach the baby. Of course, she was frightened but at least she was unharmed, apart from a small cut around one of her eyes.

An Absolute Miracle

“She was really wedged in there,” Rowland-Jones described. “It is an absolute miracle that she was still alive.” According to California Highway Patrol investigators, Marcial likely drifted onto the shoulder, and when he tried to turn the wheel back, he over-corrected…

A photo of the highway in Big Sur.
Source: Wikipedia

That led them to cross over into the oncoming lane and drive off the cliff. Yet without witnesses, we will ever know for sure. Columba and her husband stated that they will raise Tania with her cousins. “We are going to talk to the rest of the family and tell them we want to keep her like our own child,” the heartbroken sister announced.

The Father Who Was Rescued by His Children

In September 2011, a man from Santa Clarita was driving down an isolated stretch of a narrow mountain road, 50 miles north of Los Angeles, when he saw two bright headlights heading towards him, causing him to swerve out of the way.

An aerial view of rescuers arriving at the site.
Source: CNN News

“I’m flying, there’s no more road,” David Lavau later said. His car had plunged 200 feet down the side of the cliff and into a ravine. The 68-year-old found himself trapped and injured at the bottom of the canyon but he remained hopeful. He didn’t know his own children would be the ones to rescue him.

Two Crashes, One Survivor

In the immediate aftermath, thankful to have survived the crash, Lavau waited, sure someone would find him soon. He was certain a helicopter would hover above and rescue him from his dire situation. But no one did.

A view of the mountain by the road.
Photo by Gus Ruelas

In fact, nobody even knew he was missing. As he crawled out of his crushed car, he discovered something that he did not expect. Just inches from his car was a second wrecked car. “My heart stopped. There was a man in there,” Lavau said. But that man didn’t make it out alive.

Alone and Remorseful

It looked to him like the man in the other car had been there for a while. It was in that moment that Lavau realized he was really all alone. He thought about his life and family, and how he wished things had gone different.

Police officers and rescuers stare at the wrecked car.
Photo by Gus Ruelas

“My children weren’t all together,” he explained. “They weren’t where I wanted them to be as a family, working together, and I wanted that one last wish.” It was five days after his crash that his grown children realized their father was missing.

Teaming Up to Find Dad

They put their family differences aside and joined together to find their dad. They first hacked into his voicemail and Facebook for any clues. The police were finally able to trace Lavau’s cell phone. It was a crack in the case.

Authorities recover the car of David Lavau.
Photo by Jonathan Pobre

“Once we got the clarification of the pinging of the towers, my husband and I, we were just like, ‘POW,’ we were just mounted up,” Lavau’s daughter, Chardonnay Hooker, said. Meanwhile, at the crash site, Lavau was losing the hope he initially had; he began to give up.

One Last Prayer

He was surviving on eating leaves, ants and even bumble bees. He also had no choice but to drink dirty creek water. He decided to leave a note on his car, in case his family were to find him when it was already too late.

An aerial view of the wrecked cars.
Source: SCVNews

“I scratched on the car, that the accident, that the dead guy wasn’t my fault and ‘I love you, kids,'” he said. After leaving that message, he remembered lying down, closing his eyes, and saying one last prayer. “I said, you know, I can’t go anymore, this is it.”

The Voice of His Son

Then Lavau heard his son Sean’s voice yelling at him from a distance. “Hello, anybody down there?” Lavau shouted back at the voice: “Help! I’m down here by the water!” It was Lavau’s sixth day of survival when his son, Sean, found the accident scene and heard his father’s voice.

A video still of Lavau being found.
Source: YouTube

He shouted down to his dad that he was coming with two others, and they tumbled down the steep mountain side to rush to their father. It came to be the last thing Lavau expected after nearly a week alone and defeated.

A Helicopter and Chocolate Malt

“He smelled so bad, but I still held him and I just held him and held him and we just both cried and cried and cried,” Sean described. Finally, that helicopter that Lavau was hoping for came to rescue him.

Lavau’s family speak during an interview.
Source: ABC News

They asked him, “What can we give you, anything we can do for you?” Lavau replied, “I’d sure like a chocolate malt.” The father learned that he suffered broken vertebrae and ribs and fractured his arm in three spots. He was going to need two surgeries and six weeks of recovery.

A Second Chance

He later said something surprising – that he wouldn’t change what happened to him because it bought his family back together. That Thanksgiving, Lavau didn’t call surviving the wreck a miracle; he referred to it as a second chance.

A photo of Lavau at the hospital with his family.
Source: YouTube

“I’ve never said this before, but I could say, and that was in my prayer when I was down there, for more time, and I got it.”

As for the man in the second car, he is believed to be an 88-year-old man named Melvin Gelfand.

The Man in the Other Car

It seemed as though the two crashes being so close to each other was sheer coincidence. Gelfand’s son-in-law, Will Matlack, reported that the family was contacted by the coroner’s office; they were trying to match fingerprints or dental records to make an identification.

An aerial view of the wrecked cars after the accident.
Source: YouTube

“The coroner said it’s 99 percent a sure thing,” Matlack said. Gelfand, a World War II veteran, had simply disappeared, leaving no clues. That he ended up at the bottom of that cliff remains a mystery. His daughter, Joan Matlack, said, “It seemed like he was either lost or disoriented.”