Rescuer dies while searching for missing Irvine hiker

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IRVINE, Calif. — The search for a missing hiker was suspended Saturday after a search team member died.

The hiker, a 52-year-old Irvine man, was traveling with three other people at Mount Baldy last weekend when he disappeared.

“ALL search operations for Mr. Mokkapoti are suspended: SAR crews are being recalled from the mountain and search operations are being re-evaluated,” the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department tweeted about 5 p.m.

“During today’s search, a SBSD-Search and Rescue team member became separated from his partner. An air search located the team member unresponsive on ice and snow. A medic was lowered to the SAR member and discovered him deceased,” the sheriff’s department said.

“The cause and circumstances surrounding this incident are unknown and investigators are working to determine exactly what occurred,” officials said.

The deceased Search and Rescue team member was identified as Timothy Staples, 32, a nine-year veteran of SDCSD Search and Rescue. Staples was one of the 126 people working in 23 teams in the search.

Sreenivas “Sree” Mokkapati and his group started hiking from the Village at Bear Flats to the Mt. Baldy Summit on Sunday morning, according to the sheriff’s department. At some point, Mokkapati became separated from the group.

“I keep reliving that moment in my mind,” Williams said. “He muttered something, I didn’t quite hear what he said, and then he just kept walking.”

Search and rescue volunteer teams from San Bernardino, Tulare, Fresno, San Mateo and Los Angeles counties have searched the mountain for any sign of Sree or his direction of travel.

“Mr. Mokkapati is considered an experienced hiker and has hiked Mount Baldy a number of times,” the SBCSD said. “He was prepared for a day hike and has limited supplies.”

Mokkapati was last seen wearing a gray “puffy” jacket and gray pants. Anyone with information about his whereabouts was urged to contact the Fontana Sheriff’s Station at 909-453-5392, or 909-677-9436. Callers wishing to remain anonymous are urged to call the We-tip Hotline at 1-800-78-CRIME.

At a Wednesday night candlelight vigil, Sree’s son, Shravan Mokkapati, said it was “heartbreaking” to find out that his father was not among four other stranded or injured hikers that rescue teams came across during the day.

The closure of some areas of Mount Baldy was in effect until Dec. 31 or until the search and rescue operation ends, according to the SBCSD.

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