CLEVELAND NATIONAL FOREST – The search for two teenagers lost in the wilderness around Holy Jim Canyon focused Wednesday morning on a flicker of light spotted before dawn near the top of a hill.
The missing teens were known to be carrying a lighter, and officials hoped the dim light seen around 4:30 a.m. was a signal. “That will be the focus of the main search,” said Lt. Steve Gil of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department.
Nicholas Cendoya, 19, and Kyndall Jack, 18, have been missing since Sunday night, when they called for help after getting lost during an afternoon hike. They said they thought they were about a mile from their car before their cellphone went dead.
Authorities believe they left the trail and got lost in the rough canyon terrain, where the brush is heavy and the ground is rocky. Searchers also checked abandoned mine shafts in the area Tuesday, but found no sign of the hikers.
The search resumed at 7 a.m. Wednesday with authorities dispatching a hand crew to cut through heavy brush and get into some of the most difficult terrain in the area. Since Sunday, search crews have fanned out within a two-mile radius of where the teen’s car was found; bloodhounds have been brought in and helicopters buzz overhead.
Darkness kept searchers from heading into the area where the light was spotted Wednesday morning. Mountain bikers on the trail also reported seeing a dim light Tuesday evening, near the Joplin Trail, and searchers will also be checking that area, said Lt. Jason Park of the Sheriff’s Department.
A helicopter flew over that area after the report, but didn’t spot anyone in the area.
“Right now, our energy is in the area where we have possible activity,” Park said.
About 20 firefighters from the Orange County Fire Authority’s hand crew, who clear brush and cut lines during major brush fires, were deployed early Wednesday to search the more rugged areas. “These guys are the ones that know the terrain and they can move quickly,” Capt. Jon Muir said. “They’ll be able to cut through the brush and get to areas other people may not be able to.”
Search-and-rescue teams from Sierra Madre, Bear Valley and San Bernardino were also assisting search efforts. Helicopters from Los Angeles and Orange County were back in the air after being grounded late Tuesday when dense fog rolled in.
Cendoya and Jack graduated from Costa Mesa High School. Authorities described them as active and healthy people. Cendoya played football and Jack was a dance-team member.
Officials believe the two have spent three nights in the rugged canyon, but authorities said conditions overnight have been manageable and not too cold.
Dozens of friends and family members have joined the search, organizing through social media and searching areas near the trail. So many turned out Wednesday morning that sheriff’s officials closed down the access road about two miles from the trail head. Officials said the volume of traffic was causing problems, and they needed to keep a route open for emergency vehicles.
Whitney McAleer, a high school friend of Jack’s, said she and friends were walking the trail and searching for signs of the pair. “We came up empty,” she said, but she wasn’t discouraged.
“We’re going to find them,” she said. “We’re going to bring them home today.”
By SALVADOR HERNANDEZ, CLAUDIA KOERNER, DOUG IRVING, ALEJANDRA MOLINA and BROOKE STAGGS/ ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
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