COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - A father and two children who were lost for three days in Congaree National Park have been rescued by an alert park ranger working the overnight shift.
Law enforcement ranger Jared Gurtler discovered J.R. Kimbler, his 6-year-old daughter, Jade, and 10-year-old son, Dakota, early Tuesday morning near the Oakridge trail approximately two miles from the Harry Hampton Visitor Center.
Gurtler was out before sunrise because of the relative quiet in the forest at that time of the night. "I know that during the daylight hours when the birds start making their noises you just can't hear anything," he said. "The best window of opportunity to hear human voices in the wilderness is going to be at night when there's no noises."
"I was out on the trail just hollerin' for our missing party," said Gurtler. "I eventually got what I thought was a human voice." Gurtler confirmed the voice was the 40-year-old father and asked if everyone was okay.
"They were in surprisingly excellent condition under the circumstances," said Gurtler. "They looked in pretty rough shape, but when I started talking to them, we carried on a normal conversation, they were coherent, they weren't limping." He then gave the group bottled water and called in his discovery.
Because of the terrain and a channel of water, Gurtler wasn't able to reach the family. Department of Natural Resources officers were called in around 7:45 a.m. to use ATVs to get to the trio's location and take them to safety.
The three were taken to an area hospital to receive any necessary medical treatment.
Officials say the group left the boardwalk trail sometime Saturday afternoon and got lost on a path deep in the woods. Kimbler told rangers he and the kids hunkered down and slept when the sun went down.
Gurtler said Kimbler told him his cell phone died the first night. The three had no food or water for most of the 58 hours they were lost in the park.
The children's mother, Tammy Ballard, reported the trio missing Saturday around 10 p.m.
Ballard said she received a text from Kimbler, who lives in Springdale, saying the three were lost. The 40-year-old and his children left around 5 p.m. for a short hike that originated from the Harry Hampton Visitor Center, said National Park Spokesperson Dana Soehn.
Crews on the ground, in the water and in the air spent the better part of three days looking for the family.
High water, leaves, and large trees knocked down by this winter's ice storm hampered the search, said Soehn.
"It's been a very difficult search," said Soehn on Monday afternoon. "We're using all available resources."
In addition to emergency personnel, Ballard walked the trails herself Monday morning yelling her kids' names.
Park officials say getting lost in the vast area isn't necessarily unusual. "We have had folks get lost off trail this year, those are typical short searches, where law enforcement assists in finding someone who is slightly disoriented off of the trail," said Lauren Gurniewicz, public information officer, Congaree National Park.
"You know you have small kids that are adventuresome and they might of saw something," said a family friend at the scene. "You are talking with your kids and the next thing you know you look up and which direction was the direction back."
The Richland County Sheriff's Department, U.S. Park Service Rangers, the Lexington County Fire Service, South Carolina Law Enforcement Division, and the Columbia Fire Department assisted the SC Department of Natural Resources.
This was the 11th search and rescue in the park so far this year.