Fred Dominguez and his three children headed out to the pine forests of northern California to search for the perfect Christmas tree.
They ended up stuck in a snowstorm for three days, and survived only thanks to the eagle eye of a rescue helicopter pilot who saw the word "help" spelled out in tree branches near the water drain they were using as a shelter.
Their adventure was rapidly turning into the feel-good story of the holiday season, as television news crews yesterday jammed the hospital where the four of them were taken to recover from mild frostbite, and big-name cable show hosts lined up for the right to interview them one-on-one. At a hospital news conference, the survivors thanked everyone, Oscar night-style, from the rescue workers to God himself.
Television news anchors put on their best heart-warming smiles as they recounted the adventure and its happy ending far more in keeping with Christmas spirit than anything emerging from Iraq or the presidential election campaign. Really, though, it was a classic tale of what happens when a southern California man raised on nothing but sunshine and blue skies is suddenly reminded that the rest of the world, including large parts of his home state, actually endure something called weather.
Fred Dominguez, 38, a pest-control worker, was raised in Los Angeles and had last seen snow when he was 12. He moved to the small mountain town of Paradise, north-east of Sacramento, just a few months ago to be closer to his children, who have lived there with his ex-wife for the past five years.
On Sunday, he set out in his pick-up truck with Christopher, 18, Alexis, 15 and Joshua, 12, and headed about half an hour north of Paradise on a narrow mountain road. It was already close to nightfall and the skies looked threatening, but the four of them pressed on regardless, wearing just light jackets, sweatshirts and gym shoes and carrying no food or equipment other than a battery-operated saw.
They found their tree and cut it down relatively quickly but then became disoriented and couldn't find their way back down to the road. After two hours of futile searching, they realised they would have to spend the night on the mountain. They used tree branches to build a make-shift shelter, working by the light of their cell phones, which were out of range of any signal up there.
The winds and snow that night were so unforgiving that Mr Dominguez and his oldest son were unable to sleep. Instead, they focused on protecting the younger children. They also prayed "for a cave, or a shelter, for God to help us", as Mr Dominguez described it. The next day, their prayer was answered. They found a fire road and took shelter in a water culvert running beneath it. They shivered in their wet clothes and shoes, rubbed each other's feet to minimise the risk of frostbite, sang songs and fantasised about places they'd like to go for their next meal, if they ever had one. "The only food we had was in our thoughts," Mr Dominguez said.
The snowstorms were so bad that it wasn't until Wednesday that helicopter crews could undertake a proper search. Forty-five people were drafted in all to look for the missing foursome, including search-dog teams who tried but failed to make headway through snow up to six feet deep. By early afternoon, the storms were closing in again, and helicopter pilots Steve Ward and David White were about to pack it in for the day when they spotted a man waving his arms.
At first they thought the man was one of their own colleagues, but then they saw the help sign, and the man turned out to be Mr Dominguez. "This was our last pass," Mr Ward said. "We were very lucky that we saw this guy."
The rest played out like the final minutes of a television movie-of-the-week. The survivors cried with joy and hugged their rescuers as they landed. They were picked up two at a time and wolfed down the military rations they were offered on the helicopter.
Soon they were in hospital, wrapped in blankets instead of their wet clothes, and being treated for their frostbite, which was not likely to have any long-term effects.
Fred Dominguez, to his credit, acknowledged that he had been woefully unprepared when he embarked on his Christmas tree hunt. "Next time I go out there, I won't be a knucklehead," he said. "I'll have some boots on."
Christopher, his oldest, demonstrated more of a sense of humour. As he disembarked from the helicopter on Wednesday afternoon, he yelled out: "Hey, where's our tree?"