By Chris Cooney
Bay City News Service
A 5-year-old girl's glowstick necklace helped a helicopter search crew spot her when she was lost in Huddart County Park on Oct. 1.
"It was that necklace, that little bit of light, that they saw through the trees," California Highway Patrol Officer Jim Andrews said.
Andrews made the remarks at the San Carlos Airport, where the young girl, Ava Chotai, was reunited with her rescuers on Tuesday afternoon.
Ava was wearing the necklace when she wandered away from a large overnight camping party in Huddart County Park, which covers around 900 acres of dense forest and steep ravines near Woodside.
Shaum Chotai, Ava's dad who was with her and several other families on the Oct. 1 trip, said she was walking from one part of the camp to another when she became disoriented and walked alone into the forest.
"She just took a wrong turn," Chotai said.
In descending darkness, Ava had wandered about 500 yards away from camp and down a steep gorge, and when she could no longer find her way forward or back, she sat down and waited.
"That is every parent's worst nightmare," Andrews said. Mountain lions, injury, and exposure to cold were some of the dangers facing the little girl, he said.
Chotai said he called 911 within minutes of not being able to find Ava, launching an immediate search and rescue effort by the San Mateo County Sheriff's Office, which sent more than 75 volunteers and a K-9 unit in to the mountains.
"They just kept coming and coming," Chotai said.
The CHP sent a helicopter crew, which started circling above the mountains in half-mile loops.
After four nail-biting hours, one of the CHP officers spotted the glow from Ava's necklace.
The officer was wearing night-vision goggles, which amplify light by 6,000 times, Andrews said.
The officer radioed the volunteer crew that they spotted something through the trees in a ravine, and Max, a volunteer rescue dog, picked up Ava's trail.
"As soon as the helicopter left the area, Max indicated she was down there and we heard her say 'I'm over here!'" Max's handler said.
Ava was found safe at about 11:15 p.m.
On Tuesday, wearing a pink dress and the same necklace she had on the woods, Ava and her family were reunited with Max, the CHP helicopter crew and some of the Sheriff's Office volunteers who helped search for her.
Anderson praised the coordinated efforts of all the agencies that responded so efficiently, and said Ava did the right thing by wearing that glowstick necklace and staying in one place.
"That kid is as brave as all get-out," Andrews said. "I'd have been scared to death out there."
Chotai thanked the officers and the volunteers from the sheriff's search and rescue unit.
"I think they have a new volunteer in me," he said.