ARCADIA, Mo. – A 3-year-old boy was found in remarkably good condition Wednesday, 50 hours after he wandered away from his home and became lost in the rugged hills of Missouri's Mark Twain National Forest.
Joshua Childers slipped out of his family's mobile home near Arcadia in rural southeast Missouri around 11:30 a.m. Monday.
Two full days and nights of searching proved increasingly frustrating until around 4 p.m. Wednesday, when search volunteer Donnie Halpin, walking along an all-terrain vehicle trail about three miles from the boy's home, spied a couple of stray dogs sniffing at something.
Halpin, 57, told The Associated Press he looked on the ground of a hollow near a creek bottom and saw the boy lying there, facing the other way. Unsure of the boy was alive, Halpin said, "Hey, Bud."
"He jumped right up and grinned at me," Halpin said. "I said, 'You ready to go home?' He said, 'Yeah."'
The child was evaluated and listed in fair condition, first at Iron County Hospital and later at Jefferson Regional Medical Center in Crystal City, where he was transferred because it has a larger pediatric unit. Ed Gast, CEO of Iron County Hospital, said Joshua's parents issued a statement thanking everyone who helped in the search and asking for privacy.
Joshua was wearing a T-shirt, a pull-up diaper and sneakers when he wandered from his home Monday morning. Later that day, authorities found one of the sneakers near a pond.
By the time Halpin found him, Joshua was wearing only the shirt and one tennis shoe. He was also wet.
Halpin said he didn't have any water but gave the child some candy, called 911 to let authorities know he had the boy, then took off his own shirt and wrapped the child in it and carried him about a half-mile to a house. A woman at the house fed Joshua, gave him milk and cleaned him up.
Joshua didn't say much except that he was thirsty, Halpin said. But after two nights in the wet, chilly woods with little to wear, Halpin said the boy wasn't crying or complaining.
"He hung on to me pretty tight," Halpin said. "Outside of a few scratches, he was in really good shape."
After the child was found, Madison County Sheriff David Lewis admitted searchers had been growing increasingly pessimistic. He figured that three days was about the limit for the boy's survival in the wild without food and water.
"It's a miracle," Lewis said. "I'm so happy you can't believe it."
Hundreds of volunteers from as far away as St. Louis, 100 miles to the northeast, came to help in the search. So did professional search and rescue crews from dozens of agencies. The Missouri State Highway Patrol brought in planes. The state Water Patrol brought in divers and sonar. Dozens of dogs, horses, ATVs, even donkeys, scattered in the miles around the tiny home that sits along the wild, rocky terrain of the Mark Twain National Forest.
The area is home to bears, mountain lions, snakes. Three ponds sit within a couple of miles of the boy's home, as do many creeks swollen by recent rains.
One of those rains came Tuesday night and Wednesday morning — so much that Halpin, a construction worker from nearby Fredericktown, was told to take the day off. So he showed up to volunteer. The search area was divided into grids. Halpin and seven others were assigned to a specific grid.
But after a few hours, Halpin became separated from the group. He was on his own, walking along the ATV trail, when he saw the dogs sniffing at the boy.
"I was just giggling, I was shaking," Halpin said of his own reaction. "To see him in such good shape — it's just amazing."
The ordeal began innocently enough. The father works an overnight shift and was home sleeping Monday. The mother was watching the child and was briefly on the phone when the boy slipped out the back door.
The couple immediately realized the boy got out and searched the dense woods around their home for about 45 minutes before calling authorities, leading to the frantic search with the happy ending.
Halpin met the parents at the hospital. With twin granddaughters who just turned 4, he could empathize with what they had been through.
"They're just happy, so happy to have their little boy back," he said.