April 27, 2014

Congaree National Park closed to public as search for father, 2 children continues

More than 20 state, national and county law officers fanned out on foot in the swampy woodland of Congaree National Park Sunday afternoon, searching for what they believe are a missing father and his two children.

The Congaree National Park has been closed to the public as search crews continue to look for a West Columbia man and his two children, 10 and 6-year-old siblings, who apparently set out on a hike Saturday afternoon.

J.R. Kimbler, 43, and his children, Dakota, 10, and Jade, 6, have been missing since he texted a friend for help about 9:15 p.m., said the children's mother, Tammy Ballard. "Lost need help sir" the cellphone message read.

National Park Service Spokeswoman Dana Soehn said during an afternoon briefing that the park has been closed to reduce the number of footprints as searchers look for clues.

However, she said there is no evidence of the three by the team of over 80 search and rescue officials.

She said the search has been hampered by high water and downed trees hanging over trails. She said the search will end at sundown tonight and resume at first light Tuesday morning.

A helicopter began to survey Congaree National Park about 1:30 p.m. Monday, joining a dozen rescue agencies from across S C.

The three family members apparently came to the park to take a walk, arriving in Kimbler's checkered yellow cab, said the children's mother, Tammy Ballard of Eastover.

Ballard said she was told Monday morning that about one-third of the park had been searched.

The kids were wearing shorts and sandals. Jade has breathing problems, including asthma, her mother said.

Visitors to the expansive, Lower Richland park were asked to keep noise down in hopes of hearing cries for help.

Birders Michele and Marvin Barg said they met 12 to 15 searchers during their 3-1/2 hour visit Monday.

"A lot of people out there looking," Michele Barg said.

Four-wheelers are being used in the search as well as people on foot, the Bargs said.

Ballard is awaiting news of her children and has been waiting at the park since Saturday night about 10 p.m., she said.

She was told Monday morning that officials had covered about one third of the extended park, but found nothing.

Park employees are stopping anyone entering the park to tell them what's going on and to caution them to keep noise down in case there are calls for help.

The manhunt in Congaree National Park for the missing father and two children continued Monday morning after about 70 law and fire officers joined the search Sunday, S.C. Department of Natural Resources Capt. Robert McCullough said.

The search continued into Sunday evening.

“We are putting four-wheelers into the woods,” said McCullough.

“I would expect this to run into the night.”

The Congaree National Park has more than 10,000 acres of swampy woodland. After dark, with the sky obscured by a tall canopy of pine and hardwood forest, it becomes extremely difficult to see.

Even during the day, McCullough said, “It’s easy to get turned around and start going the other way if you aren’t familiar with it. It’s a patchwork."

The call about a missing dad and his children came in to law enforcement shortly before midnight Saturday, and a search began in earnest early Sunday, McCullough said.

On Sunday afternoon, more than 20 state, national and county law officers had fanned out on foot in the swampy woodland of the park to search for the three.

“Cellphone service is real bad out there, and I’m communicating with our guys by text message,” McCullough said.

DNR also had a fixed-wing aircraft searching, he said.

Congaree National Park is about 15 miles southeast of Columbia.

Along with DNR, U.S. Park Service rangers and Richland County deputies are involved in the search.

Law officers believed at one point they heard a man calling for help, but McCullough had no further information on that.

This is not the first case of someone getting lost at Congaree National Park. Columbia resident Harriott Faucette said she got lost on her way to meet a group on April 6, 2003.

"We had planned to meet at the Visitor's Center," Faucette said. "I was on my way back from Charleston but was running late because of rain and accidents on the interstate."

Faucette said she headed out on the trail to find the group, which had already made its way out, but somehow got turned around.

"I realized I passed the same tree or stump over and over," Faucette said.

Wearing only jeans, a T-shirt, light windbreaker and prescription sunglasses, Faucette spent 22 hours lost in the park before DNR choppers flying overhead eventually spotted her.

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