Robert “Bob” Bell, a 79-year-old man with dementia/Parkinson’s disease who went missing in Cambria about 5:30 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 11, was found about 9 a.m. the next day, lying on a steep slope in a canyon that’s thick with trees and brush.
The 16-hour, multi-agency search for him had been intense.
When found, he had some scratches and bruises, but was in relatively good shape, considering he’d been outside all night in hiking shorts and other light clothing.
Paramedics from Cambria Community Healthcare District took Bell by ambulance to Sierra Vista Regional Medical Center to be more thoroughly examined. Physicians treated and released him the same day.
The search for Bell had included Sheriff’s Office Search and Rescue Team members from as far away as Bakersfield and Santa Barbara, 33 members of Cambria’s Community Emergency Response Team, plus neighbors, friends and strangers who just wanted to help, somehow.
A rescue helicopter flew a grid-search pattern over Cambria’s forested hills Saturday evening until about 11 p.m., when thick fog obscured the view and dense forested areas muted response from heat-tracking equipment. As skies cleared the next morning, the helicopter returned.
Sheriff Ian Parkinson helped search Saturday night, and he re-
turned Sunday morning to oversee the rescue, as did Commander Jim Voge of Cambria.
Meanwhile, CHP officers, a sheriff’s K-9 unit, State Parks rangers, Cambria Fire Department firefighters and others also combed Cambria’s Top of the World neighborhood, Marine Terrace, Strawberry Canyon, the rest of Lodge Hill, Fiscalini Ranch Preserve and even downtown areas. A Salvation Army mobile kitchen from Paso Robles kept volunteers fed and hydrated.
The Bells are noted for their years of dedicated volunteer work for Friends of the Fiscalini Ranch Preserve and other nonprofit causes. In years past, he also built and donated log benches for the preserve.
Bell’s wife, Alese Bell, was still emotional Tuesday about the searchers, fighting back tears as she said, “It was the most amazing thing to see how many people came out and cared. At 3 o’clock at night, it was like the middle of the day, there were so many people. It’s so gratifying to know we live in a community like this. I’m forever grateful to all the people. Only one person found Bob, but so many people were looking.”
Longtime Cambria resident John Sterling, who found Bell on steep acreage Sterling owns, said he’d just “had a feeling that Bob was down there” somewhere. So Sterling, who’d combed nearby areas for Bell the day before, went out again early Sunday to search for the missing man, who lives a few blocks away in Cambria’s “Top of the World” neighborhood of Lodge Hill.
When Sterling got close to the fallen man, but couldn’t see him and didn’t yet know he was there, Bell’s “dog started barking,” Sterling said. He followed the barking and found Bell, head down in a steep, rugged bed of brush, branches and poison oak. Sterling recalled emotionally that “it was such a good feeling, the best feeling in the world,” to know he’d found the missing man, who was apparently in good condition.
Until recently, Bell was a noted long-distance hiker. After receiving his diagnoses, he had continued walking frequently with his chocolate Labrador retriever, Kiki.
On Sunday, the devoted animal would not leave her master’s side, even when rescuers tried to pull her away to get to the downed man.
Kiki had a scratched paw (and stitches from an earlier tangle with a delivery truck), and like her master, was hungry and thirsty, but she seemed to be unhurt otherwise.
Kiki, like Sterling, is considered a hero now.
Caring for a dementia patient
Alese Bell cares for her ill husband around the clock. “People who don’t do it, don’t understand” what it’s like to be a caretaker to someone with dementia. “I do it out of love, but it’s constant … a huge job.”
“This was the first time in weeks Bob had said he wanted to go for a walk,” she recalled. Less than 10 minutes after he left with Kiki Sunday, “I realized he didn’t have his GPS unit with him,” because he’d lost the holder in which he’d carried the global-positioning-system tracking equipment around his neck.
“I immediately got in the car and started looking for him,” she said, “but couldn’t find him.” The frantic woman alerted authorities, neighbors Ron and Jill Hillary and other friends, and the multi-person search began in earnest.
The possibilities were diverse and frightening. “Sometimes he walks and then gets too tired to come home,” said Jill Hillary. “He’ll sit down and wait for Alese, because he knows she’ll come and get him” after finding him easily with the GPS.
The missing man also could have stopped to sit down in a vacant car, an option that many searchers considered. In fact, when a neighbor accidentally triggered his vehicle’s alarm that night, it only took about 10 seconds for a searcher to rush to the area with a flashlight, calling out “Bob Bell, is that you?”
Sheriff Parkinson said at the rescue area Sunday that caregivers of at-risk adults have another option besides GPS: Project Lifesaver, a program designed to safely and quickly locate those who wander from their homes. Once registered in the program, the patient wears a permanent, personalized wristband that emits a tracking signal.
Parkinson also encourages people to register their cell phones with the county’s reverse 911 system. The system calls landlines and registered cell phones within a given area to share important information and alerts for emergency situations, such as this one.
For details, go to www.slosheriff.org.