Colombia's miracle! Behind the search for four children who survived 40 days alone in jungle

The children were dehydrated and covered in insect bites yet in good health

CORRECTION Colombia Plane Crash Children Soldiers and Indigenous men pose for a photo with the four Indigenous children who were missing after a deadly plane crash, in the Solano jungle, Caqueta state, Colombia | AP

"Emergency! Engine failure..."

Those were the last words heard on May 1 as a single engine Cessna C-206 carrying 2 adult passengers, 4 children and a pilot over the Guaviare portion of the Amazon made contact at 7:34 am. Then tragedy struck.

The plane hit the jungle floor nose first. We know that because that is how it was found after 370 hours of search, 16 days after the crash. In it, the bodies of the three adults. Around it, signs the children survived: a diaper, a child's bottle, chewed fruit, a leafy shelter. But the four children aged 13, 9, 4 and 11 months were nowhere to be found. 

Could they still be alive? Could they have succumbed to hunger, predators, disease, fear? 

The children are indigenous who have lived all their lives on the edge of the jungle. They were on the plane escaping their scratch of land to meet their father who had left earlier due to threats of violence and had asked them to get out of the area quickly, worried for their safety.

The small plane left the remote settlement of Araraquara in the heart of Colombian Amazonia; an area on the shore of the furious Caquetá River, surrounded by thick jungle on all sides. It was once a home to Colombia's prison for its worst and most dangerous criminals. The flight was to land in San Jose de Guaviare, a provincial capital on the transition area between the jungle and Colombia's llanos plains.

Flying over southeastern Colombia's vast and broad Guaviare jungle can feel like you are suspended in mid-air. Then it feels like you are dipped in a dark green ink that swallows you and never ends. It is a formidable jungle. The foliage is thick, clearings are rare.

Just imagine yourself on the ground, insignificant in size against the vast expanse.

If alive, the children's survival would be difficult. 

They would be lost in what is perhaps the harshest most inhospitable part of the entire Amazon jungle. The air is dense with humidity there, making breathing difficult. Tall, thin trees rise 30 to 40 meters; it rains nearly all the time. The tropical mud can cling to your feet when it is not slippery. Fallen branches, hidden rocks, and tree roots can cut your skin. Disease and infections can set in.

There are swarms of mosquitos, and vicious bugs, snakes, jaguars, poisonous plants and myriad threats in the jungle. It is dark even during the day because of the think canopy; the nights are pitch black.

The thought of the 3 orphaned children and a baby alone in the unforgiving jungle struck a chord with Colombians. The entire nation was gripped by a sense of urgency and empathy. 

Search and rescue teams that included military teams and people of the forest embarked on a relentless mission to locate the missing children. The children's father fueled their determination because he firmly believed his children were alive.

Their grandfather also joined the search. They insisted the children had knowledge of the jungle and thus they could survive. The two oldest, they said, ventured into the jungle often. 

"We presume that the children who were inside the aircraft are still alive. We have found some traces in a different and distant location from where the aircraft was found," said an army spokesperson two days after finding the downed plane on May 18. "We have also found a possible site where the children could have taken shelter, and we continue the search," 

It was a daunting task. There are 1250 kilometers of dense jungle between Caquetá and Guaviare. 

The military mounted what it dubbed "Operation Hope" involving some 120 soldiers incorporating 70 indigenous searchers, search dogs and helicopters. Their commander said that if they were to find the children alive, it would become "Operation Miracle."

The children Lesly Mucutuy, 13 years old; Soleiny Mucutuy, 9 years old; Tien Noriel Ronoque Mucutuy, 4 years old; and Cristin Neriman Ranoque Mucutuy, 11 months old, faced unimaginable hardships alone against the untamed forces of nature at one of the most ferocious and inhospitable jungles on Earth.

Cut off from civilization, in unfamiliar terrain so dense that it is dark during the day, where it is nearly always raining, and impossible to see more than a few meters away, they would have to be strong, resilient, and resourceful enough to get through the treacherous labyrinth of the jungle, foraging for sustenance, eating without poisoning themselves.

That is a lot to ask of adults. These are children and a baby.

Nights would be frightening, wet, with no light at all, and predators to worry about, all while mourning the loss of their mother. 

Each passing day made their survival less likely. Each dawn would bring new trials, pushing and compounding against their physical and emotional limits.

But Colombians never lost hope. 

The military, which has been operating in the area for decades in its fight against FARC guerillas, built maps plotting each spot where tracks or clues to the children's presence were found. 

Helicopters dropped food and used loudspeakers to play recordings by their maternal grandmother, María Fátima Valencia, in their native Uitoto language to calm them down and to instruct them to remain put so searchers could get to them.

The effort amplified the advanced technology and the resources of the military. With help from indigenous guardians, masters of the jungle's hidden trails with innate instincts, they followed the often-disappearing tracks of the children.

But it might have been a rescue dog named Wilson, who was himself lost from the rescuers, that might have found them and helped them closer to the rescuers. "Where we found the last footprints, we found the footprints of a canine. We believe that the doggie found them and accompanied them," said the national coordinator of the indigenous guard, Lucho Costa.

It does appear the lost children were found by the lost rescue dog, who perhaps went searching for the rescuers and remains lost.

The last tracks of the children before were some 3.2 kilometers from the crash site, and they suggested the children were meandering the jungle aimlessly in their struggle to survive.

On Friday afternoon, the official Twitter account of the Military Forces of Colombia tweeted four pictures of its forces assisting the children and announcing their rescue. "The union of efforts made possible this happy moment for Colombia," said the tweet from @FuerzasMilCol calling for glory and credit to the soldiers, the indigenous communities and institutions that make up Operation Hope.

In Bogota, the capital, people opened their windows in shouts of joy at hearing the news. Others stopped in the streets to applaud and to cry of relief. Car horns blared in celebration.

In the central department of Caldas, in Colombia's coffee zone where men wear a traditional hat called a sombrero vueltiao, people in the streets took off their hats in respect, flashing broad smiles, and letting loud shouts of joy.

So began a national celebration that overcame even veteran reporters whose voices cracked with emotion at reporting the story. Colombian media said that tears and spontaneous screams of joy and pride broke out across Colombia throughout the evening.

It had been 40 days and 40 nights of the children's endurance, their story touching on the archetypal tale of the Biblical Noah's Ark where humanity itself survives a 40 days and 40 nights onslaught of storm.

It is a powerful story of survival. And it resonates even more because it fits into a narrative deeply rooted into the collective unconscious of humanity that includes the stories of Jesus's fast of 40 days, the Israelites; 40-year journey in the desert, and Buddha's 40 days under the Bodhi tree.

The story has universal appeal. It also serves as a beacon of hope for Colombia.

Colombia Plane Crash Children Military personnel unload from a plane one of four Indigenous children who were missing after a deadly plane crash at the military air base in Bogota, Colombia | AP

The country's president Gustavo Petro qualified the event as a "day of magic," equating its significance to a cease fire he signed earlier in the day in Havana between the state of Colombia and ELN, the last guerilla at arms. "They are an example of total survival that will remain in history," said Petro. "These children are the children of peace and the children of Colombia."

For many, the children's survival was indeed a miracle after so many days when the country was resigning to accept that the children had died or were under the control of dissident FARC groups. Instead, they were alive.

COLOMBIA-ACCIDENT-PLANE-FOUND-ALIVE-HOSPITAL One of the four Indigenous children who were found alive after being lost for 40 days in the Colombian Amazon rainforest following a plane crash resting at a hospital bed in Bogota | AFP

An initial triage reported that the children were dehydrated and covered in insect bites, yet miraculously in good health. After being stabilized ty the special forces, they were transported by helicopter to a military base.

At 1 am Saturday, a Colombian Air Force place carrying the children landed in Bogota and took them to a hospital where Petro has said he would be seeing them today. "Operation Miracle" is under way, and Colombia is celebrating.

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