Rene Compean was no stranger to Angeles National Forest. He’d hiked the park near his home in Southern California numerous times. But after venturing along a new path last April, the 45-year-old mechanic was lost.
As the day faded into dusk, following several hours of aimless roaming, his concern turned to fear. The terrain was remote and rugged. With no flashlight, only a liter of water and a power bar in his backpack, and less than ten percent battery remaining on his cell phone, Compean was unprepared for anything more than the two-hour trek he’d planned.
Compean climbed to a spot, some 7,000 feet above sea level, where he found at least one bar of signal. “SOS. My phone is going to die. I’m lost,” he texted a friend, attaching a photo showing where he was. The shot showed his soot-stained legs hanging over a steep cascade of rocks.
All Compean could do then was wait and hope. The temperature was dropping fast, and the winds were whipping. Dressed only in a tank top(背心装), shorts(短裤), and a hoodie(连帽衫), the hiker was chilled to the bone. He hugged himself into a tight ball, using his backpack to shield his bare legs from the frigid gusts that pounded him. But he wouldn’t sleep. After spotting two mountain lions and a bear, he spent the night on high alert, keeping a big stick and some sharp rocks beside him in case an animal came close.
Sixty miles away in Ventura County, Ben Kuo was working at home when he read a tweet from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, showing a grainy image of a man’s legs. The sheriff’s search-and-rescue teams had spent the previous night unsuccessfully looking for Compean, so they released the photo to the public, hoping someone might know the location.
Kuo, then 47, works in the tech industry, and he has an unusual hobby: “I have always loved looking for where photos are taken,” he says. He frequently tries to identify where movie scenes, television shows, or commercials were filmed. He’s often successful. When he saw the blurry image of Compean’s legs surrounded by an endless landscape of rocks and vegetation(植物，草木), he instinctively pulled up a satellite map on his laptop. The sheriff’s department said Compean’s car was parked near Buckhorn Campground, so he narrowed his search to the surrounding area.
“There’s an amazing amount of information you can get from satellites,” says Kuo. The first thing he noticed in Compean’s photo were patches of greenery. After comparing it to the satellite map, Kuo realized something: “He’s got to be on the south side because there’s not really any green valleys on the north side.”
That finding tightened his search, leading him to an area that resembled the terrain in the image. The final step was cross-referencing the original photo with 3-D images of the area from Google Earth. The locations matched!
He quickly called the sheriff ’s department with the latitudinal and longitudinal coordinates supplied by Google Earth. Soon, a search-and- rescue team helicopter was in the air, hovering above Compean.
After spending 27 hours alone in the wilderness, Compean cried, “I’m safe!”
Days later, the two men met via Zoom, where they made a plan to meet in person. “Maybe we’ll go on a hike,” Compean joked. Getting seri- ous, he told Kuo, “I owe you my life.”
Sgt. John Gilbert, of the sheriff’s department, agrees. Compean’s story probably would have ended very differently had a total stranger with strong satellite skills and a sharp eye for detail not taken action.
“Ben’s help allowed us to get to that location much sooner than we probably would have,” Gilbert says.
In fact, when Compean was finally pulled safely into the helicopter, one of his rescuers, unable to yell over the din of the rotors, wrote on a piece of paper, “You are so lucky.”