Race Against Death

UPDATED 03/02/1992 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 03/02/1992 at 01:00 AM EST

AFTER TWO DAYS OF TORRENTIAL RAIN had deluged Los Angeles, causing disastrous floods and loss of life, the sun finally broke through the clouds around 11:00 A.M. on Wednesday, Feb. 12. For Adam Bischoff, 15, the clearing weather meant he could get on with enjoying his midwinter break from El Camino Real High School in Woodland Hills, Calif. He hopped on his BMX dirt bike and joined his friend Stephen McCready, 16, at the end of a cul-de-sac, where an 8-foot-deep floodway had swelled to overflowing. Adam and Stephen took turns skidding their bikes through the shallow water at the edge of the concrete ditch. Then suddenly Adam's wheels slipped out from under him. As he grabbed for the bike, Adam fell into the water and was snatched away by currents racing toward the Los Angeles River at speeds up to 35 m.p.h.

"What do I do?" Adam yelled.

"Keep your head above water," Stephen screamed back.

Eight others lost their lives as a result of the freakish rainstorms that swept down the Malibu coast and across the Santa Monica Mountains, lashing dozens of communities with floods and mud slides. Adam's case was different because there was time, however brief, for hope. And because much of Los Angeles was watching his struggle for life.

For 40 minutes, as helicopter rescue and news crews tracked his progress downriver, Adam struggled valiantly to keep afloat. Along the way, dozens of people, alerted by radio and television, dangled ropes and cables from river overpasses in hopes of pulling him to safety. One would-be Good Samaritan rushed into Turner's Outdoorsman, a sporting-goods store four miles from where Adam fell in, and threw his wallet on the counter, yelling, "Give me anything that floats!" Jerrie Robertson, the store manager, handed over an already inflated display model of a $120 inner tube designed for use by trout fishermen. After dropping the tube from a bridge, the man returned to the store crestfallen that Adam had been unable to grab it as he was swept by. Robertson returned the man's wallet and refused payment.

At one LAPD station house, a group of homicide detectives raced to the river to attempt a rescue. While three of his fellow cops held onto a garden hose tied around his waist, training officer Bob Laskowski waded into the fast-flowing water with a long pole on loan from a pool maintenance man who happened to be driving by. "We saw Adam coming and waved and screamed at him, hoping he would make it to our side," Laskowski says. As Adam flew by them in a flash, Laskowski threw the pole toward him in desperation. "I knew it was a one-shot deal," he says. Laskowski lost his own footing, and his buddies had to pull with all their strength to save him from also being carried away.

After helping Laskowski back to the embankment, detectives Bruce Stroughton and Tony Finchen drove to a pedestrian overpass two miles away. Climbing down the side of the bridge without any tether, Finchen held out his hand and came within a few feet of grabbing Adam. "I can still see his face," Finchen says. "He was looking right at me and yelling, 'Help me!' "

Nine miles from the spot where Adam fell in, a line of firemen equipped with ropes spread out across a bridge, certain they could snare him. They were ready, but Adam had disappeared, possibly knocked unconscious by debris being carried downriver. The following day, when the waters receded, searchers found his body wedged under a tree and covered in mud, just 400 yards short of the bridge. At his own request, David Bischoff, 45, an employment consultant, was called to the search area to identify his son. "He looked very peaceful," Bischoff says.

In the aftermath of the tragedy, David and his wife, Marilyn, 44, are still in shock. "How could they have had him in sight for so long and not been able to do something?" David asks rhetorically. Then he answers his own question. "There is nothing they could do," he says.

In the yard behind the Bischoffs' rambling three-bedroom home, Adam's soccer balls lie wet and glistening on the rain-soaked grass. Inside, at the fool of a waterbed his parents had given him for Christmas, is a valentine card from his sister, Carrie, 18, a sophomore at the University of California at Irvine; inscribed inside is her message: "To the world's greatest brother." Surfing posters hang from his bedroom walls, and copies of Surfer magazine lie stacked in neat piles on his shelf. "From day 1 Adam was fascinated with water," Marilyn says. "If there was a puddle he would find something to do with it."

Even though he was on the verge of manhood, Adam was still a youngster at heart. "He was half man and half boy," Marilyn says, "and the little boy who wanted to go out and play in the rain won out."

DAVID GROGAN
STANLEY YOUNG in Woodland Hills

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