Family recalls narrow escape from valley of death Family recalls narrow escape from valley of death By Chuck Mueller Staff Writer --> • Photo Gallery: Death Valley ordeal • Video: Death Valley Ordeal A trip to see the mysterious moving rocks in Death Valley National Park turned into a harrowing tale of survival for an Azusa man and his three children. "We were in a dire situation where no one except ourselves could have helped us," said David Branch, a 42-year-old contractor who led his children to safety after their four-wheel-drive Ford Expedition broke down. The four hiked nearly 18 miles at night, parceling out their water supply, unsure if they could reach a tourist site before intense morning heat killed them. The misadventure began July 15, the first day of a blistering heat wave that moved across California. "I took my kids on their third visit to Death Valley," Branch said. "We wanted to see the moving rocks at a place called the Racetrack." His children Chris, 16; Courteney, 9, and Christian John, 7, looked forward to the trip. Rocks weighing up to 700 pounds slide and gouge the surface of the Racetrack playa, an ancient lake bed in western Death Valley. "It was something we all wanted to see," said Chris, a junior at Gladstone High School in Covina. "But we never expected what was coming after we visited the Racetrack." The visit to Death Valley was the third trip to the desolate park for Branch and his children. His wife, Lisa, stayed home. "I told her of our plans to enter Death Valley from the west via Highway 190 and said we would return home by Sunday night," Branch explained. Their route took them across Lee Flat at the west edge of the national park and along rugged Hunter Mountain Road. After stopping to take photographs of the mysterious rocks, the foursome headed north toward Teakettle Junction. "At 4 p.m. Saturday \, just past the junction, we stalled with a broken fuel pump," Branch said. "We were nearly 20 miles from the nearest paved road at Ubehebe Crater \." The temperature was above 115 degrees. "With no shade from the sun for three hours, we stayed inside the vehicle," Branch said. "At 10 p.m., when Courteney and C.J. fell asleep, Chris and I discussed our options to survive." They had 18 pints of water with them - enough for a day and a half. Visitors were not likely to travel their way to provide help. And Lisa Branch, at home in Azusa, did not expect them home until Sunday night. Father and son considered their best chances of survival. "I could walk the 20 miles to the crater and return with help, but if something happened to me the kids would have only enough water until Monday," Branch recalled. "And Chris would not be able to get both his brother and sister out with no water if I did not return." Branch also considered walking with 7-year-old C.J., who is autistic. Branch reasoned he could reach the crater by Sunday night, returning to the car with help before morning. Finally, the family decided to walk out together, leaving the vehicle at midnight with the temperature hovering at about 100 degrees. As they started walking, Courteney said, "I wanted to go to the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas, not Death Valley." That was a view everyone shared, Branch said, and gave a brief boost to their morale. "Chris and I figured that we could walk 2 miles an hour and make it to the crater in eight hours, when the heat would be too intense to walk farther," Branch recalled. "We used a small flashlight to see the road. The light attracted insects, which in turn attracted hoards of bats. Until daybreak, bats were diving all around us. It was an eerie feeling." As they trudged along the road, the family took sparing sips of water. By 4 a.m., they had walked about 10 miles. Courteney became sick and began to vomit. Rest stops became more frequent, costing the four valuable time to reach the crater before sunrise. "At 7 a.m., after walking 15 miles, we could see the sun coming up over a ridge," Branch recalled. He and Chris helped carry C.J., and for the final two miles, Branch put 90-pound Courteney over his shoulder. "We continued walking until 9:30 a.m., when the heat was beginning to rise and was too much for us," Branch said. "It already was unbearably hot." They decided to lie down in a wash alongside the road to take advantage of a small strip of shade. "Our plan was to rest for an hour, and then I would head toward the crater with Chris staying with Courteney and C.J.," Branch said. About 10 a.m., as the temperature climbed to 115 degrees, the family was startled by the sound of a car laboring up the road a quarter-mile away. Chris dashed out and waved it down. "A family of four from Texas, driving a Ford Escape, was heading for the Racetrack," Branch said. "They would never have made it with their low clearance, and would have become stranded and suffered our same fate." Totally exhausted, Branch and his children squeezed into the car with the Texas family. They were driven to the paved road and the ranger station nearby. "The ranger told us it would have been six days before the park service patrolled the road where we broke down," Branch said. At dinner that night at Stovepipe Wells, the Branches encountered the Texas family who rescued them. "One of them said, `It was destiny that we saved each other."' Branch said.