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19 Rusty Wrecks Airlifted
From Topanga Creek

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       Upper Creek Crew straps wrecks to be lifted out of the creek.

By Gary Meyer

TOPANGA, CA; September 9, 2000:
At 5:30am a team of about 16 volunteers, made up of local and nearby residents, Topanga Watershed Committee members, and one very generous helicopter airlift company, assembled at the Resource Conservation District (RCD) office in Topanga.

Also see the Kids at the
Community House!

Hearty volunteers had already put in hundreds of hours of work preparing for this day, down in the deepest areas of Topanga Creek where rusting automobiles still containing toxic fluids have been polluting the waters, some for more than forty years.

The ambitious idea to attempt a helicopter lift of 19 cars out of the creek came from two Topanga Elementary students, Joseph Sloggy and Nic Paparella, and their teacher, Mr. Ritesh Shah.  The project was coordinated through the Topanga Watershed Committee and the Resource Conservation District of the Santa Monica Mountains.  Funding came from the State of California Urban Streams Restoration Project, while additional funding was provided through the Topanga Earth Day 2000 fair and fundraiser.

 Kelly Liken, of Heli-Flite, straps a wreck for liftoff from creek bottom.


Two lift locations were readied for rigging the cars.  A crew was assigned to descend to each one, where the final work of strapping each automobile, as well as large piles of junk needed to be carried out before the helicopter's arrival, scheduled for 9:30.  Nineteen cars and many piles of scrap would be flown out of Topanga Creek this morning.   During the prep and strapping work, the message came that fog had delayed takeoff from the air field in Corona.  

After the rigging work was done, word came again via cell phone that the fog had lifted and the chopper was on its way.  Repeated efforts to reach Lower Creek Crew by radio failed, so Upper Creek Crew did not know whether to hike down and help them as planned, if they needed it.  The decision was made to wait.  Upper Creek Crew passed the time, swapping stories.  Delmar Lathers gave everyone a class in creek bed botanicals and folk medicine.  After it was pointed out that the three most poisonous plants in southern California were all sitting together at his feet, Kelly Liken, the ground crew supervisor, reached for his walkee-talkee to try Lower Creek Crew again.  No luck.


           Upper Creek Crew prepares a Firebird for its final flight.


During the down time, Scott King, local sound engineer and musician, decided that he wanted to try his hand at hooking up one of the cars to the chopper himself.  Delmar was also a must try guy.  King thought hooking cars to a helicoper was such a cool idea that he's decided to name his new band accordingly, "The Top Creek Hookers."  Look for them playing the next bash at town center.

Lower Creek Crew finally radioed after sending one member up a tree to gain transmission clearance.  After complying with Upper Creek's request that he whistle like a bird, the Lower Creek caller was permitted to ask "What's going on?  When will the chopper be here?"   "He's on his way," squawked Ken Widen, "we'll call you."  




  Ron Ogomori chops out dried mud and debris before "Luv Truck" is lifted out of Topanga Creek.


Finally Kelly's phone rang and pilot Steve announced his approach from the coast even as the pounding chop sound of the Sikorsky S-58 came within earshot.  The pilot would get a visual on both crews before heading up the canyon to the Community House where a ceremony was to be held to honor the students, the teacher and the pilot.  County Supervisor, Zev Yaroslovsky, presented certificates of appreciation.

The chopper returned, passing once to pick up the cable and the hook, which was attached to its underside by ground crew at the drop zone.  Finally, it was show-time.  

Both crews had been advised at the 5:30am meeting, "Should the unthinkable happen... you need to move quickly out of the way and stay there until everything stops moving.  Once things have settled down, we would need to very quickly get the pilot out by kicking in windows or prying open doors--whatever it takes--and get the hell out of there, because there is fuel on board and we don't want to be around it."  






  Scott King hooks up multiple debris loads as Kelly Liken gives directional signals to the chopper pilot via walkee-talkee.


As the S-58 came whopping overhead, the down draft blew sand and debris everywhere.  Hard hats not strapped to the chin, flew off.  Crew members not wearing safety goggles could not see.  Scott King grabbed the straps and reached for the hook, which was lowered to within a few feet by pilot Steve.  Within 15 seconds, King had the first load hooked and all crew members shuffled backwards as the beast hoisted its prize into the sky.  This was going to go very quickly.

Within a few minutes he was back for the next load.  And the next.  And the next after that.  All the crew members took a turn hooking a wreck to the chopper.  Before anyone could sing "Where have all the junk cars gone?" it was over...for Upper Creek.

Upper Creek Crew started its climb back up to the highway where they would proceed to the drop zone.  There they would lay out straps for the chopper to pick up and deliver to Lower Creek Crew.  Fourteen cars lay at the bottom where Lower Creek Crew had been prepping and strapping all morning.





  Another toxic junker extracted from the creekbed.


Kelly's job with Heli-Flite takes him from remote areas where he recovers aircraft wreckages, to building tops for installation of air-conditioning units.  Kelly will soon be getting his helicopter pilot's license, as the owner of Heli-Flite has been nudging him to do it.   After the recent crash of a Sheriff's helicopter atop the Twin Towers County Jail facility in downtown Los Angeles, Kelly and the Heli-Flite crew fetched the mangled chopper from the buidling top.  They are called upon to lift just about anything you can think of.  While their fees are usually somewhat steep, they came in at angel rates to de-junk our creek.





  A yellow pickup takes off.


      The Firebird.


The Drop Zone

Upper Creek Crew arrives at Drop Zone to send straps down to Lower Creek Crew.


Kelly talks with the pilot as we see the chopper emerging from the canyon floor.


The pilot leans out the window to see his drop.


Piling up in the drop zone.


  Right on target.  Todd from Heli-Flite gives the signal to lower the hook after this drop.


The drop zone is buzzing with voluteers.  The same unrelenting pace continues as wreck after wreck appears from the canyon's floor, each landing gently in the drop zone, to be unhooked and loaded on trucks supplied and driven by Dick Sherman's Topanga Underground, Sid Ferris with Brett Randall, and Gary Jensen's Water Trucks (Tom Hogston helps out driving water trucks).  Jimmy Wiley and the Wiley Brothers crew manage the loading of everything onto the waiting trucks.

One other trucking company will be included here after we get their name.











  Jimmy Wiley deposits another wreck in the dump truck.



  Dumping the junk cars at the RCD office lot.


Cars and assorted junk are hauled off to the parking lot at the Resource Conservation District office, where RCD president, Nancy Helsley, was beaming with delight at the tons of junk and debris sitting in her yard.









  The RCD parking lot becomes temorary "junk car morgue and forensics laboratory."


  RCD president, Nancy Helsley, watches the RDC yard fill up with wrecks.

  CHP Auto Theft Division digs for VINs.



California Highway Patrol (CHP), Auto Theft Division was there to check all the wrecks for VINs (Vehicle Indentification Numbers).  VINs will be checked against stolen car records, as well as ownership records so that anyone who may have decided to dump their car in the creek can be contacted about it.  By 1:30pm they had recorded VINs from 8 of the 19 cars recovered.







Upper Creek Crew members included:  Delmar Lathers, Scott King, Ken Widen, Kelly Liken, Kevin Reed and Ron Ogomori.  Lower Creek Crew included: (names will be added here soon). Organizations helping out include Arson Watch and CEMP (California Emergency Mobile Patrol) of Northridge.  TCEP provided support in writing the grant proposal for the project.

As the day came to a close, there was a minor load hauled by the helicopter caught a gust of wind and broke a guide wire on a telephone pole.  CHP halted traffic on the Topanga Cyn. Blvd. temporarily as a safety precaution in case the pole might come down.

The project appears to come through very well.  Topanga's thanks are due to all the businesses and individuals who gave their time and effort to make this ambitious undertaking a reality.  Congratulations, Topanga, for a job well done.



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