PHOENIX – An Arizona State University student packed a water bottle with snow and let it melt under the sun for drinking water while she was stranded for more than a week, authorities said Wednesday after the 23-year-old was discovered in a remote area of east-central Arizona.
Lauren Weinberg was last seen leaving her mother's home in south Phoenix on Dec. 11 and told authorities she became stuck in the snow a day later, Coconino County sheriff's spokesman Gerry Blair. Two U.S. Forest Service employees on snowmobiles found her Wednesday about 45 miles southeast of Winslow while they were checking if gates on forest roads were closed.
"I am so thankful to be alive and warm," Weinberg said through a spokeswoman at the Flagstaff Medical Center, where she was taken. "Thank you everyone for your thoughts and prayers, because they worked. There were times I was afraid but mostly I had faith I would be found."
Other than being cold, hungry and thirsty, Weinberg was in good condition, lucid and speaking coherently, Blair said.
The undergraduate student was driving around with no specific destination, Blair said, when she drove south from Winslow toward the Mogollon Rim — a prominent line of cliffs that divides the state's high country from the desert.
The paved road turned into a dirt road. Weinberg stopped her vehicle at a fence line and when she attempted to move a gate she found that it was stuck in the snow, according to Blair. Soon, her car was stuck as well.
Weinberg had two candy bars with her and told a sheriff's deputy that she put snow in a water bottle and placed it atop the sedan she was driving so it would melt, Blair said. She wasn't prepared for the winter conditions and did not have a heavy coat or blankets, Blair said.
Weather forecasters and authorities said her survival was remarkable, given the more than 2 feet of snow in the area and temperatures that dipped to near zero some of the nights. Blair said Weinberg had a cellphone but the battery was dead.
"It's pretty harrowing that she'd been there since the 12th in an area that's totally foreign to her," he said. "We're certainly very happy that we found her, and we found her alive."
A strong winter storm hit the area the day Weinberg became stranded and hung around for two more days, followed by even colder temperatures, said Chris Outler of the National Weather Service in Flagstaff. Daytime temperatures in the town of Heber, about 20 miles to the northeast, were in the mid- to low-30s over the past 10 days.
Phoenix police told local TV station KTVK that Weinberg had purchased items at convenience stores in Chandler, Superior and Show Low on Dec. 11 and in Holbrook the following day, but there was no other sign of her since then.
Weinberg, who is studying supply chain management, missed her final examinations at school, and her family was concerned because her behavior was out of the ordinary, police told the station.
Weinberg disappeared less than a week after an elderly New Mexico couple took a wrong turn and got stranded on a remote forest road in eastern Arizona. They survived two winter storms over five days before the woman collapsed and died as they tried to hike to safety.
"She's very lucky," Outler said of Weinberg.