Dave Dwelley saw the skid mark on Gibraltar Road above Santa Barbara, parked his car and rushed to the side to look over. There, about 200 feet down and almost completely hidden by brush, was a mangled ball of blue metal that he knew was his son’s 1995 Ford Mustang convertible.
Dwelley scrambled down the mountain until he reached the car, which was right-side-up though it had clearly rolled for a long way off the road.
The car had a roll bar in it, which was about the only thing still intact, Dwelley said.
Inside, he found his son Thomas’ iPhone — which is how he had tracked the location — but no Thomas.
He shouted Thomas’ name and heard an answer come from about 100 feet away. Thomas was sitting on a rock — sunburned, dehydrated and disoriented, but coherent, Dwelley said.
Thomas, 17, had somehow driven his car off the road Friday night and ended up completely disoriented from the crash, with a skull fracture that medics said was “like a gigantic concussion.” He unclicked his seat belt, left the car and his phone, and curled up under a bush to sleep through the night.
“It’s a little rough when you look out off the cliff and see what you know is your kid’s car and it’s clearly in a bad way,” Dwelley said. “Then you get down there and he’s not there, and you call his name and he answers. It’s almost like you’re about to go into the depths of despair — but didn’t.”
He and his wife had started worrying on Saturday morning, when they realized that Thomas hadn’t come home the night before. Thomas, a Dos Pueblos High School student and member of the Engineering Academy, had plans to attend the Dos Pueblos vs. Santa Barbara High School football game with friends and get back late.
“When we woke up in the morning he wasn’t there, and that was our first indication something was wrong,” Dwelley said.
He and his wife didn’t have phone numbers for Thomas’s friends, so their daughter posted Facebook messages to see if anyone knew where he was. They had no luck, and called police to file a missing persons report. Then, Dwelley called AT&T and asked to locate Thomas’s phone.
There were no questions asked, since Dwelley was the main account holder on the family plan, and the company had coordinates with a map within 10 minutes. The map pinpointed a spot off Gibraltar Road, which confused them.
“There’s nothing up there. Why would his phone be there?” Dwelley remembers thinking. He called police, who hadn’t heard about anything in that area but said he could go to check it out himself.
Dwelley got in his car around 3 p.m. and drove up to the point marked in the map, where he saw the short skid mark on the road. After he climbed down to the wreckage and found Thomas, he immediately called 9-1-1 and a full response was launched in minutes.
“Thinking back, I was just focused on doing and not thinking,” Dwelley said. “It’s a little exciting driving up the hill, not knowing what you’re going to find, seeing this mangled car but the kid is OK. The car gave its life to save him.”
County Fire Helicopter 309 hoisted Thomas from the scene to Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital, where he is still being treated for his skull fracture. He is being sedated since he had surgery Sunday and his head is sore, but should be released in a few days with no lasting damage, Dwelley said.
The accident happened around 7 p.m. Friday on the way to the football game. Thomas had decided to take “the scenic route” by driving along East Camino Cielo and Gibraltar Road to Santa Barbara High, Dwelley said. He made it only about halfway down Gibraltar Road.
Thomas is regaining his memories of the accident, but it’s still unclear what caused the crash. The California Highway Patrol is investigating, but Dwelley says no drugs or alcohol were involved and Thomas most likely was just driving too fast for the conditions or didn’t know the road well enough.
By the time he was found, Thomas had spent almost 18 hours out there.
The family knows they got lucky. Locating the cell phone was invaluable, and they’re so thankful a roll bar was installed on the car.
“If we couldn’t locate his phone, we never could have found him, he was way down there … the car was completely buried in brush so it was hard to see,” Dwelley said.
His wife urges other parents to get the phone numbers for their kids’ friends, he said. In earlier generations, parents would just call a home phone and get in touch with the parent if not the friend, but it doesn’t work that way anymore.
Of course, parents couldn’t track their son’s whereabouts with satellites years ago either, Dwelley noted.
“The outcome was good, and if we can convince some kid to make sure his parents know the phone number of at least one of their friends, and don’t drive as a teenager drives — at least not up there — then it’s a good message,” Dwelley said.
Many friends from Dos Pueblos and family members are visiting the hospital, and the family is doing pretty well.
“We’re really focused on the task at hand — get the kid, get him safe,” Dwelley said. “We’ll probably think about the deeper philosophical ramifications later on.
“Thomas feels bad about what happened, like he let a lot of people down. … He’s OK with us talking about it, because he wants to let people see what happened and tell them: ‘Don’t do what I did.’”
Thomas even suggested taking the remains of the Mustang to Dos Pueblos High School’s parking lot for a day as a lesson, Dwelley said.
“He wants some good out of it,” he said.