When 26-year-old Jesse James Flagg left his Redding home for work on Mon., Dec. 11, in his FedEx delivery van, he never imagined what he’d endure within the next 24 hours. Flagg never imagined his van would crash in a remote area more than 50 miles west of Yreka that would leave his vehicle suspended between two trees, or that he’d spend the night in the frigid woods wearing only nylon shorts, and a thin, short-sleeved FedEx shirt, minus his undershirt and socks, because he tried in vain to use them as torches to attract help. He never imagined his eventual rescue would require multiple air and ground search crews to locate him nearly 18 hours later; injured, cold, tired and suffering from hypothermia.
When his grandmother, Cindy Corradetti, said her daily morning prayer with Jesse to keep him safe during his route on narrow, winding roads, she never imagined that by the day’s end she’d be asked by law enforcement for any unique marks on her grandson’s body in case they were required for identification.
And most of all, neither grandson or grandmother would imagine that the simple routine they’d started more than a year ago, when Jesse first accepted that particular route, would save Jesse’s life.
Jesse’s routine was to leave the Redding house he shared with his grandmother, and then check in with his family around 8 a.m. when he reached the FedEx terminal off Caterpillar Road in Redding. There, he’d load up his van with deliveries that would take him to areas like Happy Camp, Hornbrook, Yreka and up to the Oregon border, all in one day. He typically worked five, sometimes six days a week in peak times. He’ll log in anywhere from a few dozen stops to as many as 40 or more during high-delivery times, like December.
“I’d say, ‘OK, I have this many packages and stops,” Flagg said from his bedroom where he alternated between sitting and standing, trying to relieve the pain in his lower back. “I’d guesstimate how long my day would be, and when I’d be home.”
His grandmother, Cindy Corradetti, who helped raise Jesse, implemented her own routine, because she had heard horror stories about how bad the roads were that her grandson drove each day. She wouldn’t see exactly how treacherous his route was until Tuesday, when she drove up with her son and a friend to join in the search. She was horrified when she saw the steep drop-offs and sharp blind turns.
“I’d say, ‘Please Lord, send big and mighty angels of protection to bring Jesse home safe to us.’ ”
Last Monday was typical. He’d just delivered a package to some regular customers at about 3:15 p.m., followed by Flagg stopping for coffee at the Marble Mountain Gift Shop in Happy Camp. Then he was on his way to his last stop. After that he’d head east for Yreka, and then down Interstate 5 for the home stretch toward Redding where his grandmother would have a hot meal waiting for him.
It was about 3:34 p.m. as Flagg drove around Cade Mountain along a section of State Route 96 that’s especially curvy, a place with a number of blind turns that require drivers to slow down. It’s a place renowned for its many crashes, and of those vehicles that sail off the road and over the ravine, survivors are a rarity. As Flagg rounded the turn, he was startled to encounter a deer directly in his lane. Flagg, warned so many times by his father to just hit an animal, rather than risk death with a swerve, reacted. Flagg swerved. His van missed the deer, but it also missed the road in an area with steep drop-offs.
The next thing Flagg remembered was waking up in the van, and realizing that his vehicle was somehow blocked by and partially wedged in between two trees – front bumper down, rear wheels in the air.
Beyond the tree on the right side was a wide open space that would have allowed the van a direct shot off State Route 96, down the steep embankment and into the Klamath River below.
The air bag was inflated. Flagg was disoriented and shocked, but his instincts to evacuate the van kicked in when he thought he smelled gas and smoke. The engine was still running, and as he told what happened he smiled a little when asked if the power windows still worked.
“I didn’t even try,” he said. “I was just thinking to get out of the van.”
He kicked at a place on the windshield that had been damaged in the crash, and created enough of an opening to exit from the van head first. His plan was to squeeze through the window, and reach out for the tree on the right side, and then somehow, shimmy down the tree.
“I tried to reach for the tree, but there was very little leverage,” Flagg said. “I missed the tree — I missed the tree by a lot. Your options are limited when you’re half out of a car window.”
Flagg fell, slid and tumbled an estimated 90 feet down the side of the hill that was covered in brier patches thick with thorns.
He was wearing his typical work attire: tennis shoes with socks, thin basketball style shorts, and a short-sleeved FedEx shirt with an undershirt. His cell phone was still in the van. Still inside his pockets were his wallet, a pack of cigarettes and a lighter. He finally stopped sliding, but when he tried to climb back up, the terrain was too steep, compounded by a combination of thick thorny underbrush and slippery clay-like soil. Flagg guessed the place he’d landed was more than 100 feet from the road. His van was down in the trees where it was almost impossible to see from the road.
Flagg knew he had just an hour or so before sundown. He removed his undershirt, tied it to a stick and used his lighter to set it on fire, trying to wave down motorists. He repeatedly screamed, “Help! I’m down here!” but nobody heard him. Nobody stopped. He tried setting a campfire, but couldn’t get enough small twigs ablaze to ignite larger sticks and branches. He walked down stream and found a spot that looked clear and stable enough to hike to the top, and got part way up when he grabbed a pine sapling for support. The entire ledge of ground beneath him gave way and he fell to the bottom of the hill again.
“That sapling was the only thing I was hanging onto,” Flagg said. “I sat there for about three minutes trying to figure out how to get up the hill. I was covered in scratches. I was so cold. I knew I had to give up and get ready for night. Dark was coming.”
Meanwhile, back in Redding, his grandmother was feeling antsy because although she’d prayed with Flagg as usual before work that morning, her son, Jim Flagg, was who took the day’s message that his son expected a moderate day, and would be home early, about 6 p.m., for dinner.
But Corradetti hadn’t heard it with her own ears, so she called her grandson at 4 p.m. and left a message. There were no return calls from Flagg by 4:30 or 5 or 5:30. No call by 6 p.m., either, long past the time her grandson would have called from Yreka to say he was on his way home.
By 7 p.m. Corradetti called Theresa Roberts, who previously owned the FedEx route that Flagg drove an average of 350 miles a day. And although Flagg wore a FedEx shirt and his van said “FedEx” – technically, he was not a FedEx employee, but a subcontractor who delivered FedEx packages for someone who owned the route.
Roberts starting checking, knowing that route so well that she’d driven for four years herself. She knew that there was an approximately 70-mile stretch of road along SR 96 to Yreka where Flagg had gone missing. She knew that road and that route as well as anyone. She’d trained Flagg.
Roberts said that when she told one of the former drivers of the stretch where Flagg had gone missing, the man replied that going off that road and down one of the many steep embankments was one of his worst nightmares.
“For people like me and Jesse, that road isn’t that bad,” Roberts said. “But you have to pay attention. It’s so curvy.”
By 8:32 p.m. the Siskiyou County Sheriff Department and the California Highway Patrol were notified.
At about 10 p.m., Corradetti received a call from a Siskiyou County Sheriff deputy who said the entire 70-mile stretch of SR 96 had been searched, with no sign of her grandson.
Jesse Flagg was officially missing, and Corradetti needed to provide information for the missing persons report, including identifying physical characteristics. She was able to email a photo of Jesse that showed one small tattoo.
Corradetti, her son Jim and a family friend all wanted get in the car and go help search that night, but they were told by authorities that it was too dark, too cold and there was black ice on the roads, which would make their attempt even more dangerous. They would have to wait until morning to join the search.
Jim Flagg wept at the thought of his son out in the cold, alone. The family tried not to think the worst, which, for Corradetti, was that her grandson’s vehicle had plunged into the Klamath River, that he’d drowned, and she’d have to identify his body.
“I kept envisioning Jesse in the water,” Corradetti said, choking up as she spoke. “I kept praying and praying and I finally got this peace. I had this vision that Jesse was in the trees. I kept saying, Jesse’s in the trees!”
Since she couldn’t leave Redding to help find her grandson, Corradetti, who’s one of the organizers of a Christian outreach group called No Strings that feeds and ministers to the homeless and the down-and-out, took action. She got on the computer and on the phone and reached out via calls and emails to her “prayer warriors” – to the point where Corradetti said there were soon literally thousands of people forwarding the messages and praying for a miracle; to not just find Jesse Flagg, but find him alive.
Flagg was alive, but he was as cold as he’d ever been in his life. He tried burning his socks as fire starter, and that didn’t work. He remembered hearing something once about someone surviving in the cold wilderness by digging a hole and getting inside to stay warm. So Flagg dug as deeply as he could with his bare hands into the thick clay soil. Then he curled into a ball and pulled his head and arms inside his shirt. He rotated his body every few minutes to redistribute the heat, and lesson the amount of time any part of his body was exposed to the cold air. Periodically, high up above him, he could see the bright lights and slow speeds of what he knew must be search vehicles looking for him, but he had no way to get their attention.
Flagg said he was exhausted and frustrated. He said he cried – more like raged – going hoarse from shouting in a forest where nobody heard his cries.
“I had no adrenaline left,” Flagg said. “I just didn’t want to die alone and cold. I knew there were animals out here – bears and mountain lions. I decided I could be scared or go to sleep.”
He managed to sleep a little, and was awakened by the sound of a helicopter. He knew people were looking for him. He tried to yell. Finally, he heard someone yelling for him. He yelled back.
One of the people yelling for Flagg was Kevin Tkoch, a forestry technician and firefighter with the U.S. Forest Service, joined by another USFS colleague, Ken Meidl, and USFS squad boss Philip Parashis, who’s also an EMT. Tkoch and Parashis are also members of the Happy Camp Volunteer Fire Department. The three men received the missing person report at work Tuesday morning and took off to join the search in their vehicle. The three started down SR 96, heading east, slowly hugging the shoulder of the road, looking down and scanning for signs of Flagg and his vehicle. They heard radio chatter from a CHP helicopter pilot who’d seen skid marks leading off the road and down the hill.
Tkoch said they finally spotted the FedEx van resting in some trees about 20 feet beyond the road’s drop-off above the Klamath River. They called for backup, and a fire engine with rope. They started yelling in the direction of the van, not knowing if Flagg was still inside, or if he was inside, whether he was still alive. They heard a shout from below and followed the sound until they spotted Flagg. They yelled for him to stay put, that they’d come to him.
Tkoch said he and Parashis zig-zagged down the hill to reach Flagg, slipping along the way in some places. Meidl stayed at the top of the hill as the commuications contact with Yreka dispatch, and helped coordinate the rescue from above the steep drop-off.
“We saw him, and he was basically holding himself up with a stick,” Tkoch said. “He was shivering pretty hard.”
That’s about when Flagg’s family pulled to a stop at that same place along SR 96 after a fruitless two-hour search in the cold.
They stopped their car when they saw the long line of emergency vehicles of every kind parked, lights flashing, along the shoulder. They knew Flagg had been found. They didn’t know his condition; if he was dead or alive.
At the rescue site, the fire fighters and EMT removed their sweaters and wrapped them around Flagg until the space blankets and heating packs were delivered to the site.
Flagg was hoisted up the hill strapped into a basket via a low-angle rope recovery, performed in large part by the Happy Camp Volunteer Fire Department. The USFS guys stayed with Flagg, guiding the basket through the brush and trees, all the way to the top. Once Flagg made it to the shoulder of the road, he was taken by ambulance to a rendezvous where a helicopter picked up Flagg and flew him to a hospital in Medford where he was treated for hypothermia.
Word spread quickly in Siskiyou County and beyond of Flagg’s rescue. The Happy Camp community shared joyous Facebook messages to update everyone of the good news about Flagg, the guy they count on to deliver their packages nearly every day, in all kinds of weather.
Jessie is such an amazing guy.
I’m so glad they found him okay!
I hope he gets to see this!
I hope he knows how much love he has outpouring from this community!
I hate those roads.
Most of us do.
And although Tkoch with the USFS was one of the first responders on the scene, he emphasized that Flagg’s rescue was truly a group effort of so many from the tiny, remote Siskiyou County community and surrounding areas, including citizens and FedEx customers, the Siskiyou County Sheriff Department, the U.S. Forest Service, CHP ground and air units, the Seiad Volunteer Fire Department, Happy Camp Ambulance, and lots of fire rescue personnel, including the Happy Camp Volunteer Fire Department.
“It was great to see such a collaborative response,” Tkoch said. “It was pretty impressive how the entire community came out in support. It’s a very challenging area of road, and can be a hazardous with rocks, ice and wild life; lots of deer. It could have gone the other way. I’m just happy for Jesse and his family, and that he’s home with them for the holidays.”
Jesse Flagg is home, but he’s in a lot of pain. He was diagnosed with a compressed fractured disc in his lower back near his tail bone.
His scratches are healing, and he’s taking one day of recovery at a time.
He doesn’t know when he’ll return to work. Right now it’s an effort to walk without a cane, so it might be some time before he can handle five or six days of 350-mile routes on windy, narrow roads; lifting boxes that weigh up to 150 pounds.
Although Flagg said his goal is to return to his route and his customers, his grandmother would love to see a delivery job closer to home, on roads that aren’t as risky.
For now, Corradetti, whose birthday is next week, has already received the best gift possible for her birthday and Christmas presents. Her Jesse was lost, but now he’s found. He’s alive and home. Her prayers were answered.
“For me, it was an amazing miracle,” Corradetti said. “I think his angels were there in the trees, and they lifted him up.”
When asked whether Flagg shared his grandmother’s explanation of his survival, he smiled a little.
“I know that my odds of survival along that stretch were slim to none, if it hadn’t been for those two trees.”
Jesse added that yes, those fortuitous trees kept his van from rolling down the embankment and into the Klamath River. But the other crucial component that contributed to his survival was his family’s simple routine where Jesse called his family as he headed out for his day, and then he called again when he was heading home.
“Without that routine of those calls, who knows how long it would have been before people knew I was missing,” Jesse said. “Nobody wants that route. It’s definitely one of the worst. One guy told me he’d been rescuing people along that road for 30 years.”
These days, Jesse spends most of his time going to doctor’s appointments, filling out paperwork and resting. He’s had a lot of time think about what happened, and how differently things could have turned out. He wishes he had the name of every person who helped find him, so he could acknowledge each one personally.
“I thank all the people who did so much — all the rangers and search and rescue people, and people I don’t know,” he said. “And Grandma’s part, too, who contacted Theresa, who got the ball rolling. I know I’m lucky to be alive.”
Photos of crash site and Jesse Flagg injuries by Brad Graham.