Four children survived 40 days in the wilds of the Amazon jungle before being rescued.
The four children — Lesly, 13, Soleiny, 9, Tien Noriel, 4, and Christine, 1 — were found thin but very much alive Friday after a rescue operation that took them more than 1,600 miles through dense forest.
Colombian special forces airlifted them to the capital, Bogotá, to jubilation across the country and news headlines around the world.
But the rescue – codenamed Operation Hope – raises many questions.
Gen. Pedro Sanchez, who led the search operation, told NBC’s “Today” show Monday that the children’s survival was down to a factor of three.
“First, the desire to sustain their lives. Second, they are tribal, so they are immune to many dangers in the forest,” he said. “Third, they know the forest.”
Here’s how four helpless children survived for so long in a situation that would be a challenge for most adults.
An accident survivor
The children were traveling with their mother from the Amazonian village of Araraguara to the city of San Jose del Guerrero when the single-engine Cessna plane crashed early May 1.
When the crash site was found 16 days later, rescuers found the bodies of three adults on board – but not the children.
Instead, rescuers found a baby bottle, a small abandoned pair of shoes and some footprints leading away from the rubble.
The children’s maternal grandfather, Narciso Mukuduy, said in a video released by Colombia’s Defense Ministry on Monday that older sibling Leslie found her footing and pulled the younger Christine from the rubble.
Manuel Ranoc, the father of the two youngest children, told a news conference Sunday that Leslie, 13, had been alive for about four days after the accident and that her mother had left the children to fend for themselves.
He added that the children will tell their story when they are ready.
Rescuers searching the wreckage also found fruit from the plane and remnants of cassava flour, a staple food in the Farina – Amazon region.
As the fruit and tapioca ran out, the children ate the seeds, the family said.
The children are members of the indigenous Huitoto group and are well versed in the lore of the jungle from an early age. Everyone involved in the case agrees: this is what saved them in the end.
“Finding enough high-quality food in a remote part of the Colombian Amazon, building shelters and staying out of harm’s way for 40 days and nights would be a challenge for most adult Westerners … never mind three children under 12 carrying an 11-month-old baby,” said England. said Carlos Perez of the University of East Anglia, an Amazonian biodiversity expert who grew up in the Amazonian city of Belem in Brazil.
“About 100 years ago, that body of knowledge was very robust, but there was no plane crashing in the jungle; 100 years in the future, there might be more efficient planes, but very little of that knowledge.” he added.
Sanchez, who led the search operation, agreed. The children’s background is that they know “how to live in the jungle, how to eat, how to drink, how to protect from the hostile jungle and how to protect from the rain, because it rains only 16 hours a day.”
The children had some luck on their side: the fruit was plentiful, an official told reporters, because “the forest was in harvest.”
How were they discovered?
A massive rescue operation that gripped the country managed to find the children, but President Gustavo Pedro drew fire last month when he mistakenly announced they had been found on Twitter.
The Colombian military and indigenous monitors — two groups not always on the best terms — essentially agreed to work together.
About 150 soldiers and dogs were flown to the area along with dozens of indigenous volunteers.
“The work between the armed forces and the indigenous communities – who know the forest better than us – the work was successful,” Pedro said on Saturday.
Soldiers dropped boxes of food from helicopters into the jungle, hoping it would help the children survive. Airplanes flying over the area dropped flares to aid search crews on the ground at night, and rescuers used loudspeakers to blast a recorded message the children’s grandmother had told them to stay put.
According to Sanchez, the children were found about 3 miles from the crash site in a small clearing in Colombia’s Caqueta province.
Rescuers came within about 70 to 170 feet of the children twice during the search.
“The boys were already very weak,” Sanchez said. “Surely their strength was only sufficient to breathe or reach a small fruit or drink a drop of water in the forest.”
The forest was so dense that there was nowhere for the rescue helicopter to land, and the children had to be pulled out one by one with a rope.
The search is still on for a missing special forces dog, a Belgian shepherd named Wilson, who found the children but was separated from the main search team. The children’s grandfather said the dog was kept with the children and “became their faithful friend” before disappearing into the forest.
How are you now?
Considering the children’s distress, they are in remarkably good shape.
Astrid Cáceres, director general of the Colombian Family Welfare Association, told reporters: “They talk a little and are weak … they don’t talk as much as we would like. So let’s give them some time.”
Defense Minister Iván Velázquez told reporters on Saturday that the children are still very weak, unable to eat food and still being hydrated. Otherwise, “the condition of the children is acceptable,” he added.
They are expected to stay in the hospital for at least two weeks.
Fidencio Valencia, an uncle of one of the children, told Colombian media: “They have painted. Sometimes they need to let off steam.
According to a rescuer, Leslie’s first words after being found were: “I’m hungry.” One of the boys was quoted by local media as saying: “My mother is dead.”