COLUMBIA, SC — As J.R. Kimbler cleared away the dead bugs from the dirty pond water to collect water for his young son and daughter this past weekend, his only thought was keeping them alive.
“I knew I wasn’t going to let anything happen to my children,” said the 43-year-old Springdale resident who was safely rescued with the two children from the Congaree National Park around daybreak Tuesday morning.
Kimbler, his son Dakota, 10, and daughter Jade, 6, had been missing since Saturday, after setting out in the 27,000-acre woods for an afternoon walk. They were located 2-2½ miles from the Harry Hampton Visitors Center near the park’s entrance.
Kimbler spoke with the news media Tuesday afternoon at Palmetto Health Richland, where the three were treated and then discharged a few hours later. They were joined by the children’s mother, Tammy Ballard of Eastover, who had remained at the park since Saturday night after learning about the disappearance a few hours earlier.
“I’m so glad to see all of you,” Kimbler told the gathering of reporters before sharing details about the three-day ordeal.
He said he and the children were just planning a short walk at the park – which he had never visited – when they unintentionally veered off the main route.
“The next thing we know, we were off the trails,” he said.
The three initially tried to get back to the trail, he said, but they began to go in circles. “Once you go a couple of hundred yards, everything starts to look the same,” he said.
And as night began to fall, their search became more desperate but still led them in circles, going through the underbrush of the large hardwood forest.
“I was just walking in front and taking the brunt of everything,” Kimbler said. “As soon as it started getting dark, I knew it was trouble.”
Knowing he was lost, Kimbler said he texted a friend for help but said his phone immediately went dead.
“Otherwise, I would have been blowing everybody’s phone up,” he said.
Not knowing when help would arrive, Kimbler said he prepared to protect his children from the elements. He used their clothing to shield them from mosquitoes as best as he could, and the three huddled close through the overnight hours.
“We just hugged each other and hunkered down,” he said.
Over the 2½ days, he said they kept trying to find the trail but never could.
Kimbler has no Boy Scout or survival training.
“Closest I got to that was watching the `Survivor' series on TV,” he said.
So they continued to stay as hydrated as possible. They kept walking toward the sun, because Kimbler figured they would run into something or someone. They tried to find food, and Kimbler thought they hit the jackpot after scaring away a wild turkey and finding six or eight eggs. However, that didn't go well.
“I grabbed one of the eggs and said, ‘We can eat these – crack them open and swallow them whole!’ I cracked it open and the bird was too developed. It was gross,” Kimbler said.
And they continued to hope.
That hope eventually gave away to joy when National Park Service ranger Jared Gurtler – one of nearly 100 professionals and volunteers who had been searching for them – made contact.
The family was in stable condition and was taken by ambulance to Palmetto Health Richland for observation at about 7:45 a.m. Tuesday and treated primarily for dehydration. Hospital physicians said given the ordeal, each had come through it very well. And while Jade has asthma, Dr. Derick Wenning, an emergency medical physician, said there was no indication she experienced an attack during the weekend.
Ballard, the children’s mother, clung tightly to daughter Jade during Tuesday’s hospital briefing and said she was thrilled that everyone walked away safely.
The call about a missing dad and his children came in to law enforcement shortly before midnight Saturday, and Robert McCullough, a spokesman for the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, said the search began in earnest early Sunday.
McCullough said the park can be disorienting, even during daylight hours. Park Service officials say people who are lost in the wilderness should stay put.
Kimbler said while he never intended to veer off the trail, he feels bad about what his children had to go through.
“Next time, I think we’ll just go to the skating rink,” he said.
Tips: A sampling of items to take on a day hike.
Always carry plenty of water. Three quarts per person per day is a good rule of thumb. Warmer conditions and/or rugged terrain may necessitate carrying more. Take drinks often to stay well hydrated. Filter or treat water from natural sources.
Carry more food than you think you will need. It is better to bring extra snacks home with you than to go hungry.
When you choose a hike, consider the ability levels of all members of your party.
Acquaint yourself with the area and specific trail(s) you plan to hike so you can set a reasonable timetable for your hike.
Check weather conditions before you leave.
Talk with a park ranger about trails and conditions before setting out.
Leave your itinerary with someone you trust and check in upon your return.
To help with navigation, consider a map (with protective case), compass or GPS.
Take sun protection, including a hat and sunscreen. Other gear suggestions: flashlight and extra batteries; a first-aid kit (including antiseptic wipes, bandages, ibuprofen, blister treatment, insect-sting relief treatment); knife or multi-tool.
Wear appropriate clothing and footwear for weather and terrain.
SOURCES: rei.com (Recreational Equipment Inc.), llbean.com