Father rescued from Congaree NP: 'I know I wasn't gonna let nothing happen to my kids'

Published: Apr. 30, 2014 at 12:30 PM EDT|Updated: Jan. 30, 2015 at 2:40 PM EST
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn
(L to R) J.R. Kimbler, Dakota Kimbler, Tammy Ballard and Jade Kimbler
(L to R) J.R. Kimbler, Dakota Kimbler, Tammy Ballard and Jade Kimbler

COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - The man who circled the Congaree National Park with his two children for more than two days recalled the "nightmare" of trying to find a way out of the situation.

J.R. Kimbler, 43, spoke to the media at Palmetto Health Children's Hospital in Columbia after he and the kids, 6-year-old Jade and 10-year-old Dakota, were treated for dehydration.

A doctor said all three were in good condition considering their lack of food, water, and shelter. "They're doing fantastic, I gotta be honest with you," said Dr. Derick Wenning.

Kimbler said he had never been to the park and would never return following almost 58 hours of wandering the dense forest, hoping to be rescued.

The trio was enjoying a hike on the boardwalk trail Saturday afternoon when they decided to try to find one of the ponds after seeing a sign for fishing.

"And the next thing you know we were off the trail," said Kimbler. "Once you go 100 yards, everything looks to be identical. Then it started getting dark and that's when I really got worried."

"It was not our intention to veer off the trail."

The three circled for hours until Kimbler realized they were lost. "I sent a text message to my buddy, Paul, Saturday evening," he said. "No sooner than I sent the text message, it [his cell phone] flashed and went off."

"I had no way of charging it," said Kimbler. "Cause I would have blowing somebody's phone up."

That message made its way to Tammy Ballard, the kids' mother, who contacted law enforcement. The massive search began late Saturday night.

At its height, the effort included more than 65 emergency personnel and volunteers and covered thousands of square feet on the ground and in the air.

Once it got too dark to see, the three hunkered down for the night, hugging each other for warmth. "I know I wasn't gonna let nothing happen to my kids," said Kimbler.

On Sunday, the family walked toward the sun most of the day, hoping to move in a straight line and come across somebody searching for them or even a marked trail. Kimbler said at that point he knew they were in trouble.

"I thought help would come a little bit sooner than it did," he said. "I felt like the world's worst father. I kept trying to tell them it's okay, it's okay."

Kimbler said he and the kids came across a wild pig and wild turkey during their time in the forest.

The trio survived on dirty water from the park's many ponds and streams. "We were trying to scrape away the dead bugs off the top," said Kimbler.

Doctors would later say those efforts certainly helped to keep the family alive.

After another night along in the woods, J.R., Dakota and Jade were fatigued from lack of food and water. Kimbler said they walked for 30 minutes and then took 30 minute breaks all day Monday.

"I never walked so much in my life, said Kimbler. "I think I qualify to be a park ranger now."

Nightfall came again without any human contact. "Scariest moment was last night," said Kimbler. "I kind thought that they had called the search off."

Luckily, park ranger Jared Gurtler was out before dawn. He figured it would be quieter at night and would have a better chance of hearing the lost party.

"I know that during the daylight hours when the birds start making their noises you just can't hear anything," Gurtler said. "The best window of opportunity to hear human voices in the wilderness is going to be at night when there's no noises."

At around 4:30 a.m., Gurtler discovered the trio near the Oakridge trail approximately two miles from the Harry Hampton Visitor Center.

"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 checked out at Palmetto Health Richland and released Tuesday afternoon.

Kimbler will never forget his three days in the woods with his kids. "I guess I did pretty good because I kept everyone alive for three days," he said.

When asked if he would take his children hiking again anytime soon, Kimbler said he'd much rather take them somewhere indoors.

"Skating rink," he joked.

Follow WIS:   

Copyright 2014 WIS. All rights reserved.