COLUMBIA, SC — Jared Gurtler had set out alone on foot two hours before dawn Tuesday.
It was the third day of a wide-ranging manhunt in the vast Congaree National Park, a swamp and hardwood forest preserve. The 36-year-old park service ranger knew that before first light was when he could hear best.
“At night, no birds are singing and human voices can be heard best at that time,” Gurtler said. That is crucial, he said, “because in the park, you may think a sound is coming from one direction when, in fact, it’s coming from another direction.”
Within an hour, the entire focus of a three-night, two-day manhunt for a missing family in the wilds of the park would descend on this single ranger and his find.
Gurtler, who has worked at the 27,000-acre Congaree National Park since 2009 and knows the terrain, advanced slowly on foot, his flashlight a dab of brightness in an ocean of black. The canopy from overhead pines and hardwoods is so thick few stars shine through. The area had been searched before but, officials said, Gurtler just had a sense he should go back.
“I gave a holler out every two, three minutes. I would walk 100 yards, give a holler, walk 100 yards, give another holler,” Gurtler said.
Around 5:30 a.m., he heard a distant answering cry.
Gurtler yelled, “Are you J.R. Kimbler?”
He got a “yes” back from the Columbia taxi driver, 43, who was last seen Saturday afternoon when he took son Dakota, 10, and daughter, Jade, 6, on what was supposed to be a short hike at Congaree.
“Do you have the children with you?” Gurtler called. Another yes.
“Please have your children yell.” Dakota and Jade called out.
Kimbler called, “Please come help us!”
After radioing that he had contact, Gurtler made his way forward until, across a creek that was blocking his way, he saw the Kimblers.
A burden lifted
“It was a huge burden that was lifted,” said Gurtler, who like many rescuers had been hoping for the best but occasionally fearing the worst. He had been one of the original searchers called in on Saturday night.
One of the most intensive manhunts in the Midlands in recent years had come to a happy end.
Some 9,000 acres of the 27,000-acre park had been searched by late Monday. Although temperatures had been mild during the search, anxiety ran high. Kimbler had no wilderness experience, no food and was with two young children. None had standard wilderness gear, even rain jackets.
Beginning Saturday night, the search-and-rescue operation by Tuesday had involved more than 80 people from 10 local, state and national agencies. It melded boots-on-the-ground woods savvy from Gurtler and others as well as a sophisticated military-like operation that coordinated land, river and aircraft search efforts.
A team of rangers who came in from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park organized state and local rescuers, making sure searchers had enough food, water and proper equipment and marking off searched areas to keep making sure they weren’t needlessly searched twice.
When found, the Kimblers were about 2½ miles south of the Harry Hampton Visitor Center, off what is called the Oakridge Trail. The thickly wooded area is honeycombed with creeks and small winding unmarked trails snaking through “blowdown,” which is thick underbrush and fallen trees. It is easy to become disoriented and wander in circles, officials said.
Facing the Kimblers across the creek, Gurtler tossed them three bottles of water – all he had with him – and a small container of mosquito repellent.
Kimbler told the ranger that he became lost Saturday after crossing over a bridge and going straight instead of continuing on with the trail.
“The father said when the sun went down, they basically hunkered down and slept,” Gurtler said. “They were out there in total black darkness – I can only imagine how they felt.”
Three S.C. Department of Natural Resource game wardens — J.B. Smith, Dexter Bassard and Kevin Roosen – got the assignment to pick them up. They jumped on two Yamaha all-terrain vehicles and headed toward Gurtler. The children were dressed in short pants and T-shirts; the girl just had one sandal.
Bassard said, “Seeing them, I almost got a little misty-eyed.”
“I put the two kids on my four-wheeler, and Dexter (Bassard) took the father on his,” Roosen said.
“I asked the little girl, ‘You want a cheeseburger?’ She said, ‘I want three!’ ” Roosen said. “Medically, they looked fine, they were in high spirits, but they need to be checked out.”
The father, Roosen said, told the game wardens, “I bet you all think I’m the worst father in the world.”
“I said, ‘No, I don’t. Stuff happens.’ But he was so happy to see us,” Roosen said.
The father also said that he and the children followed a creek much of the time. “But apparently that had them walking around in circles,” Bassard said.
“This is an example of a success story of how agencies worked together to find and successfully rescue this family,” said Dana Soehn, National Parks Service spokeswoman.
Soehn said that by Monday night, many searchers were exhausted. Gurtler was one of the few local rangers who went out early Tuesday before dawn.
The search had begun around 9:30 p.m. when Kimbler texted a friend: “Lost need help sir.” The friend called others, who alerted authorities. After making the call, Kimbler’s cellphone died.
Rangers closed the park to the public Monday, and clearing the trails helped in the search because it quietened things down.
Making the search more difficult was the fact that Kimbler and the children were wandering around instead of staying in one place. That meant searchers could cover one area, only to have the Kimblers wander into that area.
“They were a moving target,” Soehn said.
The park, which is 17 miles southeast of Columbia, reopened Tuesday afternoon.
Although there are no major threats to life in the park, there are biting and stinging insects, including fire ants, biting flies and ticks, snakes and poisonous plants like poison ivy, according to a park brochure. There are also wild hogs and bobcats. People are warned to treat or boil any water they plan on drinking from the park.
On the way back, Bassard said, “I asked the dad what they had had to drink, and he said they were kind of drinking out of the running creek water.”
Searchers knew that a front of bad weather was advancing.
“We would have still been out searching in whatever weather,” Gurtler said.
Gurtler, who has participated in 11 search and rescue operations so far this year at the park, had this advice for hikers:
“If you are ever lost, don’t go wandering, because then you will end up somewhere opposite of where you think you are. Stay where you are.”
Reach Monk at (803) 771-8344.