Clinging to just a handful of sage scrub on the steep cliff, perilously close to falling 150 feet to her likely death, the terrified 18-year-old turned to the man sent to rescue her.
“Don’t let me fall!” she implored.
Wearing a dark-green jumpsuit, white helmet, brown gloves, black boots and a red harness, Reserve Deputy Jim Slikker knew he didn’t have the best footing on the slope in Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park.
A second rescuer, Deputy Jason McLennan, was hoisted down to help secure Slikker and the victims with a safety line.
Slikker then told the young woman to be calm, that he had a tight grip on her, and that everything would be OK.
Everything did turn out OK during the challenging Jan. 3 cliff rescue, during which Slikker and his colleagues in the Orange County Sheriff’s Department Aviation Unit, using a hoist attached to Duke 3, the agency’s recently acquired hybrid Airbus AS350B3e patrol and rescue helicopter, saved the teen and her companions, an 18-year-old female and a 18-year-old male.
The three teens were strapped into a “Screamer Suit” (that’s the real name) and affixed with a helmet before they were flown to safety to the nearby helipad at Oakley headquarters in Foothill Ranch.
And on that day and every day he works for the OCSD, Slikker provides his very specialized services for free.
The 53-year-old retired as a deputy in 2013 after a legendary career as a 25-year member of the OCSD’s dive team, the underwater search and recovery unit that is part of the agency’s Harbor Patrol/Marine Operations Bureau.
Now Slikker is back helping people as a volunteer reserve PSR (Public Service Responder), putting in two 12-hour shifts on weekends as a medic and “downside rescuer,” the person hoisted down from Duke 3 or the agency’s two main rescue aircraft — both UH-1H Hueys.
“I love hanging out with these guys,” Slikker said.
Since the OCSD Aviation Unit began hoisting up patients to helicopters staffed with medical personnel in May 2016, Slikker figures he’s been on a dozen rescues like the one in Whiting Ranch, when he was assisted by Duke 3 pilot Sgt. William Fitzgerald, hoist operator and Reserve Deputy Jer Kahala, and fellow downside rescuer McLennan.
Also on that call were Duke 1 pilot Deputy Carlo DiGanci and Tactical Flight Officer/Flight Instructor Sgt. Bart Epley.
Fitzgerald, one of the supervisors of the OCSD Aviation Unit, refers to such rescues as “high-risk, low-frequency” missions.
And Slikker, he said, is among the best in the business, winning a handful of Medals of Valor throughout his career.
While on the OCSD Dive Team, Slikker and a partner once responded to a rescue at sea in the OCSD’s Harbor Patrol fire boat in treacherously high swells between 20 and 30 feet. The conditions were so dangerous that the Coast Guard declined to send one of its boats.
“I thought, ‘These people are going to die out there,’” Slikker recalled.
Two men were on a fishing boat whose mast had broken 18 miles off of Corona del Mar.
Winds were gusting up to 70 miles per hour.
A Coast Guard helicopter couldn’t lower rescuers onto the fishing boat because of the broken mast, and the two people on the boat were unwilling to jump in the water and be hoisted up. Slikker and a partner managed to rescue both by using a safety line to transport them to the OCSD vessel.
Recently, as a member of the Aviation Support Unit, Slikker, Paramedic Deputy Drew McMillan, Hoist Operator Deputy Brian Stockbridge and Pilot Deputy Erik Baum received a lifesaving medal for responding, within nine minutes, to a female hiker who suffered a head injury after being hit by a mountain biker in the backcountry trails of Crystal Cove State Park.
Slikker’s on-the-job exploits go on and on, from rescuing six men after their outrigger capsized outside the harbor entrance off Corona del Mar, to diving into frigid and murky water in an abandoned mine in the Cleveland National Forest where, sadly, two brothers died. The mine shaft was only 4 feet high in parts and 5 feet wide, and Slikker and other divers had to enter it single file connected by a safety line.
Slikker said he doesn’t worry about his personal safety during Air Support Unit rescues.
“As long as you’re trained and hook yourself up correctly, it’s as safe as it can be,” Slikker said. “You can’t worry about equipment failure or anything. You’ve got a job to do. You don’t think, ‘I’m 200 feet in the air, I hope I don’t fall.’ You trust the pilot, you trust the hoist operator and you trust your training.”
Slikker became interested in a career in law enforcement as a kid. His father worked at Newport Harbor as a maintenance supervisor, and young Jim spent a lot of time there with him and met many OCSD deputies.
“I thought it would be a cool job,” Slikker says of joining the OCSD.
Slikker was an explorer for the agency before he was hired in 1984 as a reserve deputy. He did that for a couple of years before becoming a regular deputy.
Slikker worked jails and patrol before joining the Harbor Patrol in 1988.
He then spent three years “being a dad” (he has four children, ages 11 to 25) before Fitzgerald, seeking deputies with EMS skills, called Slikker to see if he would be interested in joining the OCSD Air Support unit as an unpaid reserve.
At the time, Slikker was teaching EMT classes at Saddleback College.
Following a Grand Jury report in 2010, the OCSD was tasked with bolstering its search-and-rescue capabilities.
The agency acquired two Hueys from a military surplus program called asset procurement at no cost to the OCSD (the cost savings totaled $13 million). And in November 2016, the OCSD purchased the hybrid AS350B3e patrol and rescue helicopter Slikker was hoisted from for the Whiting Ranch rescue.
In addition to the fellow deputies that went on that call, other members of the OCSD Aviation Support Unit are involved with search and rescue training.
They are PSR Mike DeLaby (Special Enforcement Bureau chief medic), PSR R.J. Garwood (rescue aircrew member), Deputy Brian Fischer (Aviation Support Unit pilot and maintenance officer), Deputy Alec Bollhagen (SWAT and hoist operator) and Sgt. Bart Epley (training sergeant).
Members of the Aviation Support Unit train all over Orange County in places like Ronald W. Caspers Wilderness Park, Irvine Lake and the Cleveland National Forest. They need to train in a variety of environments to be ready for anything. The Aviation Support Unit is one of nine programs in the nation certified by the Public Safety Aviation Accreditation Commission. The California Highway Patrol is the only other program that has this accreditation in the state.
The ASU covers the 13 Orange County cities that contract with the sheriff’s department as well as the Santa Ana PD, but Duke also can be called to assist on major regional calls, Fitzgerald said.
The unit is fully equipped to provide ALS (advanced life support) on scene before patients are transported to hospitals. Drugs and equipment that paramedics use on regular 911 calls are kept in a blue bag.
Once per shift, the Air Support Unit goes out and trains.
“There are lots of variables that makes a rescue high risk, such as winds, rain and lots of dust,” Fitzgerald said.
Pilots are trained to put someone down in a 1-foot circle and when the hoist operator lowers the hoist for the rescuer on the ground to lock into, he tries to get it into the rescuer’s hands on one try. That happened perfectly on the Whiting Ranch call.
“They make it look easy,” Slikker said of his colleagues.
Said Fitzgerald for the helicopter rescues: “Everyone has to be on the same page.”
In addition to having many outdoor activities and hobbies, helping people in need remains Slikker’s No. 1 passion.
“Anytime we can do that,” Slikker said, “it feels like we’re doing a good public service.”
To read more about the recent Whiting Ranch rescue, click here.