Kiparsky, 77, and Irwin, 72, had taken a late-afternoon Valentine's Day stroll from their rented cottage in Inverness. But when the sun set, they got lost in a dense forest of coyote brush, thorny vines, downed trees and poison oak that prevented their repeated attempts to find their way back. For days, they survived on only puddled water and wild fern fronds, their son Jonas Irwin told the media.
As the days turned into a week, hopes had dimmed for their rescue. The searches spanned 10-12 hours each day, but rescuers — from the Marin County Sheriff's Office to the U.S. Coast Guard to community volunteers — could find no leads as to the couple's whereabouts.
On Thursday, Feb. 20, the Sheriff's Office declared the search and rescue operation a "recovery mission."
Still, 70 members of the sheriff's search-and-rescue team gathered at the Inverness Fire Department on Saturday, Feb. 22, to provide any means of closure they could find for the Kiparsky and Irwin families.
"We weren't expecting to see them alive, but everyone kept their hopes up," said Quincy Webster, 18, a senior at Redwood High School in Larkspur who found the couple. "Even if it was going to be a recovery mission, we wanted to find them."
Webster that morning had been paired with Rich Cassens of California Rescue Dog Association and his 3-year-old golden retriever and search dog, Groot.
"I'm a K9 handler," Cassens said. "I was called in because my dog is certified in locating human remains."
They were tasked to comb a drainage area starting from Shallow Beach, a nearly 3-mile drive from the couple's rental cottage on Via De La Vista. There was no good rationale behind the assigned location. All the "high priority areas" had already been canvassed, according to Cassens. They were looking anywhere else that could possibly be searched.
"I would do my best, like all the other searchers," Cassens said. "I'd hit the drainage as hard as I could and search as much of it as I could."
The volunteers started at the beach and, right off the bat, had to slog through a mud bog, which Webster sunk into up to his knees and which painted Groot with thick mud. After a fruitless search, the team continued to follow the drainage and stopped momentarily when confronted by a "wall of trees," Webster said. There was no trail — just a thick tangle of vegetation.
"If it was clear, it would have been a 30-minute walk and we'd be done, but there was no way that was gonna happen with this density of the brush," Cassens said.
Instead, Cassens and Webster had to bushwhack their way through the thicket, using only their gloved hands and bodies. Then, shortly before 10 a.m., after about an hour and a half of maneuvering through foliage, they heard voices.
"We looked at each other and thought, 'That's kind of odd.' We weren't expecting somebody to be yelling for help," Cassens said.
"I thought maybe it was another team," Webster said. "Maybe it was someone else who got lost. They just sounded so alive and well."
Immediately, Cassens signaled Groot to follow the voice, and without any consideration of a careful route, the volunteers hurriedly forced their way through the vegetation.
"In my mind it was just: 'I think we found them. Get down there and see what kind of condition they're in. Get them out of there' — and adrenaline," Cassens said. "Once we knew somebody was there, we needed to get to them and worry about picking a good route later."
When the searchers finally reached Irwin and Kiparsky, the pair were elated and shocked with disbelief.
"As soon as they saw us, you could see their spirits were lifted and they asked, 'Are you really real?'" Cassens said. "We assured them that we were."
Webster recalled how grateful they were: "Thank God you found us. We're so happy," they had said.
Physically, they were beaten up, Cassens recalled. Their hands and feet were cut from the brush they had crawled through, as they later told their sons. At a press conference, hours after the couple had been found, Sgt. Brenton Schneider recounted that Irwin had lost a hearing aid and his glasses, while Kiparsky had lost her shoes.
To strengthen them, Cassens and Webster gave them a jacket, a 32-ounce bottle of water, Gatorade and a few energy bars. From there, Webster, who was tasked with communications, climbed about 60 feet up the hill to try to get a signal on his radio and contact the nearest search-and-rescue team.
"They asked what 'plan' it was," Webster recalled, referring to the codes Plan A and Plan B, meaning "Dead or alive?" Stunned when Webster said "Plan B," search-and-rescue members asked him multiple times to confirm that it was in fact the couple and they were in fact alive.
A helicopter from the Sonoma County Sheriff's Office was called in to extract the couple. Irwin was loaded onto a litter first and flown about a half-mile to Pierce Point Road, where he was attended to by paramedics. Kiparsky followed, leaving an ecstatic group of search volunteers on the ground as she was airlifted out. Irwin and Kiparsky were rushed in an ambulance to Marin General Hospital, about 30 miles away.
"This is in a class of its own. I've never been in something quite as big as this," said a tired but satisfied Webster, who had helped look for the couple the previous Sunday and Monday and also attended an all-day recertification program for the search-and-rescue team on Friday.
Cassens agreed: "Especially when nobody was expecting to find them alive, much less in such good condition. This one's gonna stick with me for a long time — forever."
Sons breathe a sigh of relief
At an impromptu press conference outside of Marin General Hospital on Saturday evening, stepbrothers Jonas Irwin and Jonathan Kiparsky were beyond relieved to find their parents were alive and well.
"This is the best possible ending," said Jonas Irwin, who was raised in Palo Alto and now lives in Livermore. "Our parents are scratched up a little bit, they're probably dehydrated, a little bit of hypothermia, but for the most part, they're in reasonably good health and they'll probably be out of the hospital in 24 hours."
Jonas Irwin was at home when he received an unexpected text message from Schneider that said, "We found them."
"I'm thinking, initially, 'Alright we have bodies and this is better than nothing,'" Jonas Irwin said. But when he learned that his parents were alive, he screamed.
"I'm absolutely ecstatic to see my mother joking with me," said Jonathan Kiparsky, who flew out to the Bay Area from Boston on Tuesday, Feb. 18, to watch over the search-and-rescue operations. "To see Ian, who's as close as you can get to a father to me, making the same old wisecracks — he's talking about the old blues song they were singing, about drinking muddy water and (falling) asleep down in a hollow log."
After their family reunion, the stepbrothers learned more about how their parents wound up lost.
"They went out on Valentine's Day to look at the sunset and it got dark," Jonathan Kiparsky said. "They took a wrong turn and they found themselves in trouble and they kept going."
He said the two were just on the other side of a road but blocked by a thicket.
The two stepbrothers also were overwhelmed with gratitude for all the agencies and friends that offered their support.
"Thank you to everyone, everyone who was thinking about them, who was searching for them, who has reached out to me and my family about them — thank you," Jonathan Kiparsky said. "There are gonna be parties in Palo Alto, I can tell you that. The town is gonna light up when they roll in."
Neighbors of Carol Kiparsky and Ian Irwin said they were overjoyed when they learned the couple were found alive on Saturday.
"This is the best birthday present of my life! This is the greatest gift," Connie Jo Cotton said of the news, which arrived the day before her birthday. (Cotton is an employee of Embarcadero Media, the parent company of Palo Alto Online.)
Cotton said she has friends who were part of the rescue effort and she received a phone call at 10 a.m. Saturday that the couple was safe.
"I just started crying. It's a little overwhelming," she said. "A few of us have lived on this block for 10, 20 and 30 years. It was hard grasping that one of us has fallen to such a fate."
Kiparsky and Irwin have at times come to frequent gatherings in University South at a neighbor's home. Since the couple went missing, some residents have had evening meetings to discuss their feelings and share news about the couple's disappearance, she said.
Catherine Cohen, another neighbor who frequents the neighborhood gatherings, said she's known them for more than 10 years.
"They are a fixture in the neighborhood," she said. Irwin was known for strolling in his overalls and tinkering in the couple's yard; Kiparsky is always present in her garden. They are always smiling, she said.
"They are a super sweet couple. I think the only reason they are alive is their love for each other," Cohen added.
On Friday, Feb. 21, before the pair were found, Cohen spoke to Jonathan Kiparsky, who said the family could use the neighbors' help in their garden and at a plot they kept in the community garden at Eleanor Pardee Park, she said.
At the time, the family was thinking about a memorial service, she said.
When Cohen learned Saturday morning that the couple were found alive, she cried.
"It's been such a long week. It's nice to be able to breathe and not walk past the house and have this overwhelming feeling of sadness," she said.
Cotton said that as connected as residents on the block are, the neighbors will be even closer now after this experience. When Kiparsky and Irwin, who are recovering from their ordeal in private, come back home, neighbors plan to have a big party for them.
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