“I’m only here because of Trinity County Search and Rescue,” says Donna Brantly. On December 29, 2007, Brantly and her husband James were traveling east on California State Route 299 when they hit a patch of black ice and left the road. James was killed. Donna remembers nothing of the accident. It was a series of chances that led to her rescue – two fishermen spotted the tracks in the ice, the passenger seat brackets broke so Donna was thrown backward and cocooned in the crushed metal. The search and rescue team worked for four hours to remove her from the vehicle, which was trapped precariously near the Trinity River.
After the accident, and after Donna’s long recovery, which included a full year of rehabilitation, she and her family began to learn more about the rescue team and the vital role they play in rural communities.
“They have to replace about a 1,000 feet of rope every year,” says Donna. She also learned that volunteer first responders often pay for their own training and emergency gear. In 2008 the James P. Brantly Memorial Fund was created to support the work of rural search and rescue organizations.
Donna and her daughter, Cheryl Kingham, believe that James would have approved of the work his legacy supports. James Brantly was a steadfast man who stuck with the things he cared about. He was a member of the United Methodist Church for 50 years, a lifetime member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars organization. He worked in federal law enforcement for 30 years, earning the Commissioner’s Meritorious Achievement Award for rescuing a woman on Palomar Mountain. He received citations from President Kennedy and Attorney General Robert Kennedy for his assistance during the Oxford riots when the University of Mississippi enrolled the first black student, James Meredith. His marriage to Donna spanned five decades.
“He was so handsome that the girls at my college accused me of keeping the photo that came in the frame,” says Donna, referring to the photo of the “tall, handsome sailor” she met on the Long Beach boardwalk at the dawn of the Korean War. It was only when James took leave and showed up at her dormitory with a flat of strawberries that the teasing stopped.
Cheryl describes her father as “very loyal, very loving.” He respected his wife, who had studied business and went on to be a business manager at the local school district.
“Big Jim,” as some people dubbed James, liked to give back. He often volunteered at his church and helped neighbors in their homes, doing plumbing and electrical work.
“He could fix anything,” says Donna, who also called James her “Handy Andy.”
The James P. Brantly Memorial Fund has supported small fire departments and search and rescue organizations by providing emergency equipment, training funds and supplies such as water purification equipment, intubation dummies and rope.
Donna, now 86, helps administer the fund along with Cheryl; the family lives in McKinleyville and regularly host Cheryl’s Girl Scout troop. Cheryl says that one takeaway from the tragic experience was that if you’re traveling you should make sure to have emergency contact information in the glove compartment of the car and other locations so first responders will know who to call if there’s an accident. The family adds to the fund every year on James’ birthday, January 16. To learn more about the James P. Brantly Memorial Fund, click here.