VOLUME 38 NUMBER 1 | SPRING 2020
A few days after his rescue, Eckersley tried to return to the scene of the tragedy. “I got within a mile, but I couldn’t cross. The river was still too high. I was tempted to risk it.” It was three months before he was able to retrieve his truck with all his clothes and personal belongings inside. Not long after the accident, Eckersley met with each of the boys’ parents. Above: Devestating floods affected the entire region. Photograph: Ojai Valley Museum Right: Scott Eckersley’s contemporaneous account of the tragedy, hand written on the back of a cigarette carton. Photograph: Perry Van Houten
tragedy. “They were getting ready to cross. But he said, no, we’re not going to try this.” But not everyone remembers lessons from a half-century I can see their faces sometimes
ago. “There could be somebody back there right now, just asking for it,” Eckersley said. Fifty years later, Eckersley is still bothered by the memory of the boys. “I got to know those kids. I can see their faces sometimes,” he said. Had the group stayed put that terrible night, would things have
he remembered seeing a couple of Volkswagen vans belonging to Ojai Valley School, parked in a camping area a couple miles down the road. Inside, Eckersley found food, clothing and blankets, “so I finally started to calm down. I found a cigarette carton to write everything down on, because I was not sure I was going to live Oddly enough, I found a cigarette carton to write everything down on, because I was not sure I was going to live. I was writing it like it was a will.” He takes the carton out every now and then, and thinks back. Help arrived later that day. “It was getting dark when this helicopter came over, and I was sure it was a rescue helicopter, but it wasn’t,” he said. It was a CBS News helicopter, which landed and flew Eckersley out, and passed over the stranded tractor in the middle of the creek. When he saw the tractor, “they say I let out a yell and passed out,” he recalled.
“That tore me up,” he said. He figured it was his duty, even though it was bitterly difficult to do. Nowadays, fibromyalgia keeps Eckersley from hiking into his beloved back country. “I don’t think it has anything to do with the accident. It’s just the way it is, getting old. Otherwise, I’m kind of the same; perhaps a little bit wiser, about a lot of things,” he said. In 1970, Eckersley recalled, a man leading a group of Boy Scouts through the Sespe apparently remembered the lessons taught by the
ended differently? “We broke into that cabin to save our lives. These kids were happy as can be, breaking up chairs to burn for firewood. The joy of seeing kids that know they can’t get out, but they’re warm and cozy — that’s one of those great visions I can see in my mind’s eye, 51 years later.” Why did Eckersley survive? He still doesn’t know. “Lots of questions,” he said, “no answers.”
This profile by senior reporter Perry Van Houten ran previously in the Ojai Valley News, took 2nd place in the California Newspaper Publishers Association Awards for journalism 2019.