The couple were holding hands when the searchers found them.
Quincy Webster, just 18 and a volunteer with the Marin County Sheriff's Search and Rescue Team, couldn't quite believe what he was seeing at first.
By Saturday, the rescue effort had officially shifted to a recovery operation. Even the couple's son was doubtful his parents would be found alive after seven nights in the woods where temperatures dipped into the 30s.
Yet here were Webster, dog handler Rich Cassens and his golden retriever Groot — the handler and his dog on their very first search assignment — crawling their way up a drainage ditch Saturday morning. The brush was so dense they had to lift the 3-year-old rescue dog up and over the tangle of bushes to move forward.
They heard a voice, soft at first, and a bit confused.
Maybe it was a fellow searcher, the two volunteers thought, or a property owner asking who's trespassing. Then they heard calls for help.
"We looked at each other, we're like, we were not expecting this at all," Webster said. He called out to Groot: "Go get 'em, boy!"
"We started crashing through the brush as much as possible. We were yelling to them to hold on, we're coming."
Groot bounded back and forth from the couple to the rescuers. When Webster and Cassens reached the couple, weak and bloody, the husband had one question:
"Are you real? Are you really real?"
The dramatic story of the disappearance and discovery of Ian Irwin, 72, a noted Parkinson's researcher, and his wife, linguist and author Carol Kiparsky, 77, is a tale of perseverance and hope.
In a lengthy interview on Sunday, Webster and Cassens — who spent a half hour with the couple before they were airlifted out — and Michael St. John, the unit leader of the volunteers, who spoke with the couple Saturday night at MarinHealth Medical Center, recounted in vivid detail what it took to bring the couple home.
The Marin County Sheriff's Office said in a statement Sunday afternoon that the couple was not ready for interviews, but that they were in "amazing spirits and expressed gratitude to everyone."
The odyssey started in the late afternoon on Feb. 14, when the couple, who are avid hikers, set out to catch a glimpse of the sunset. With plans to be back in 15 minutes, they left their wallets and phones behind.
Few people get lost in Tomales Bay State Park, said St. John, 56, a retired Mill Valley firefighter who led the team of over 100 volunteers, about 30 of them trained high schoolers.
The brush is so gnarled in those woods, hikers rarely leave the trail, he said, describing it as "a unique kind of misery."
Irwin and Kiparsky knew the area. They had traveled to this cottage in Inverness a number of times over the years, often heading north to the Jepson trailhead just beyond their rental.
With the moon waning and the thick canopy of pines and oaks overhead, darkness fell early and the couple was quickly lost.
"They found themselves on their hands and knees, crawling, off the trail in the brush," St. John said. "They went down to find a road or a creek that leads to the bay."
The couple became mired in thickets of coyote brush, blackberry vines and poison oak. To compact the vegetation as they moved, Irwin would fall onto it, creating a bed for his wife to maneuver over.
The brush on the wide peninsula of hilly terrain is so dense that it swallowed up a radio and GPS monitor that rescuers dropped in the ensuing days. It's so tightly tangled that it sucked out the sound of the searchers' plaintive calls through loudspeakers at night, and absorbed any pleas for help that parabolic microphones were set up to capture.
Search crews from Contra Costa, Alameda, San Mateo, Napa and Sonoma counties joined in the effort, fanning out on 40 search assignments the first night, 50 the next. Boats trawled the bay. Search dogs hit the trails and drainage areas.
"We kept looking at the problem over and over," St. John said. "We believed they were there, somewhere to be found, but none of the scenarios made sense."
Saturday morning, St. John asked Webster if he wanted to "flank" Cassens, the 51-year-old dog handler from the California Rescue Dog Association, and head to a drainage area close to Shallow Beach.
"It didn't seem super likely they would be there," said Webster, a senior at Redwood High School who has been a part of nearly two dozen searches since he joined the youth rescue team at 15. "They were far away from the last known point. It did seem a little hopeless. But I'm like, 'We're going to go out anyway and do our best.'"
He and Cassens headed down Pierce Point Road towards the bay, past a few scattered homes, through a locked gate and down a private road that turned to dirt. They parked the car and suited up with thick gloves, waterproof boots, and a backpack filled with an extra jacket, granola bars and water.
Starting towards the bay first, through a boggy marsh, they looked for anything that might have washed up on shore. The mud was so thick it reached Webster's knees and covered Groot from tail to snout.
When they turned to head up the drainage ditch, they were confronted by a "solid wall of forest," Webster said.
For two hours, they forged over, under and through the brush. They followed a narrow deer trail briefly before it was consumed by undergrowth. "We're thinking there's no way they could have gotten out here," he said.
That's when they heard the bewildered "hello."
Groot dashed to the couple through a hollow in the underbrush. The couple were 200 feet away. It took nearly 10 minutes to reach them. Leaning against a log, their back to their saviors, the couple was so weak they could barely move. But their voices gained strength as they called for help.
"We asked them their names," said Webster, still too shocked to believe what he was seeing.
"We're Carol and Ian," they said.
"I kept looking at them, (thinking), is this even possible?" Webster said. "They didn't believe it either. They were on the verge of tears, overjoyed."
The radio reception to the rescue base was poor, so teams transmitted the news of the "live find" from one group to the next.
"They were asking, wait, you found them alive?" Webster said. "What? Are they alive or are they dead? What? Are you sure?"
The couple were badly cut from the thorns and thickets. Carol had lost her shoes to a mud bog. Her feet were swollen. Ian had bumped his head and lost his glasses and hearing aids. Their bodies shook with cold as the rescuers took their vital signs. Webster gave them Gatorade and snacks and his coat and other layers from his backpack.
To Webster and then later to St. John, Irwin and Kiparsky explained how they had searched for the sunset on Valentine's Day, how they trudged on hands and knees for four days until "they had nothing left," how they drank from a muddy puddle and ate fern fronds. They had seen the lights of a house about 1,000 feet in the distance, but didn't have the strength to get there.
Cold nights were the hardest, they told their rescuers. They were certain they would die.
No one heard their calls for help, they said, until Webster, Cassens and Groot.
The helicopter circled above the dense forest until the pilot caught a silver flash from the space blanket Webster waved below. They packed Irwin, who looked weakest, into the stretcher first and were just about to carry him to a clearing when they paused.
"We're going to be together, right?" Irwin asked Webster, worried he would be separated from his wife.
Yes, he assured him, they would meet at the hospital.
"Right before we went to carry him away," Webster said, "they kissed."
In the baskets, the couple rose into the sky. On the ground, the high school senior and the dog and handler on their first mission bushwhacked their way out
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