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Rescuers spot lost family's twig 'Help' sign

  • Story Highlights
  • NEW: Joshua, 12, "happy to be home. ... I didn't think we were going to make it"
  • Family sought shelter from snow in culvert, warmed each other's frostbitten feet
  • Frederick Dominguez and his 3 children set out Sunday to cut Christmas tree
  • More than 80 people searched for them Tuesday in heavy snow
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(CNN) -- Stranded in the snowy California woods for three days after losing their way while searching for a Christmas tree, a father and his three children fashioned a "Help" sign out of twigs on a nearby unpaved road, according to the helicopter pilots who found them.

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Lexi and Joshua Dominguez exit a helicopter Wednesday, shortly after being found.

The four sought shelter from the heavy snow in a culvert and removed their sodden socks in an effort to stay warm and dry while they waited for rescue, the pilots said.

Frederick Dominguez said that during the three-day ordeal, he and his children slept inside a log for warmth and ripped apart their shirts to wrap their wet, freezing feet.

"You just go to survival mode," he said. "Every parent would do that. You would do anything, sacrifice yourself, because these are your kids."

Dominguez and his children -- Christopher, 18; Lexi, 14; and Joshua, 12 -- were reported missing Monday night by Dominguez's former wife and the children's mother, Lisa Sams, according to police in Paradise, California, a town of 27,000 people about 90 miles north of Sacramento. Video Watch the family talk about their "scary" ordeal »

"I'm glad I'm home. Praise God," Dominguez told reporters after exiting a chopper at the search command post. "It was awful."

Asked how he survived, he replied, "Jesus Christ."

Dominguez said he used branches and sticks to spell out the word "Help" near the culvert, where the three slept the last two nights -- at times sleeping with their feet inside each other's shirts to help stave off frostbite.

He said his daughter was the first to hear a California Highway Patrol helicopter overhead. He said he ran though several feet of snow barefooted to wave it down.

"When they turned around, man, I was just praising God and saying, 'Thank you Lord, thank you Lord,' because I knew we had made it," he said.

Police vehicles equipped with snow chains rumbled up mountain roads to help conduct the search, which also involved a snowmobile and dogs. More than 80 searchers scoured the woods Wednesday until the four were found about 1 p.m. (4 p.m. ET).

Officer Steve Ward said he was piloting the helicopter out ahead of bad weather when he spotted Dominguez coming out of the culvert and waving. "We were very lucky that we just saw this guy at the last second."

Paramedic Flight Officer Dave White, who was with Ward, said that after the two shut down the helicopter and waved the family over, all four came running. "The little girl was in tears," he said.

White said the family was found north of where ground crews were searching. The pilots could see the "Help" sign they had made with twigs on a nearby four-wheel-drive road, he said.

Christopher Dominguez told CNN's Anderson Cooper the family got lost Sunday searching for a tree, which they had chopped down but later abandoned. He said they didn't have food, heavy coats or other provisions to help prepare for the cold nights.

"We weren't prepared at all," he said. "We just thought we were going to go up to the mountains, get our tree and go back home. It didn't turn out that way."

After the family failed to locate their vehicle, he said, snow and darkness began to fall.

At that point, Lexi Dominguez said, "I started freaking out."

"It was really, really scary," she said.

"I just remember walking and walking and being like, we're not going to make it," Lexi said. And as they huddled for warmth, Christopher Dominguez said, his sister sang songs to help pass the time until help arrived.

"We were all just happy, happy to be rescued," Christopher Dominguez said late Wednesday, huddled with his siblings under blankets in their home.

"I feel good, just happy to be home," said Joshua Dominguez. "Because I didn't think we were going to make it."

All four appeared to be in good condition as they were brought by chopper to the command post and taken to ambulances.

Wendy Wilson, the children's aunt, told CNN the two younger children had some frostbite on their toes and a touch of hypothermia, but were expected to make a full recovery.

Butte County Search and Rescue dispatcher Madde Watts said, "They had angels with them, for sure."

The search riveted those in Paradise and beyond.

Mayor Alan White, whose son played soccer on the same team as Joshua last year, said he and many others in and around Paradise have cut Christmas trees in the same place where the family vanished. When winter weather sours there, he said, people in the woods can get lost quickly.

"If you're 50 feet from your car, you might not be able to find it," he said.

Although police found the family's car, it offered no clues as to where they might have gone.

The inaccessible area is beyond the reach of cell phones, authorities have said.

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Paradise High principal Mike Lerch said students had volunteered to help in the search. "This is a good family," he said.

Christopher Dominguez had graduated from the school a few months ago, Lerch said, and Lexi is a sophomore there. Joshua attends Paradise Intermediate School. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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