'I will never go back there again,' father says after rescue from SC park

"We could have been walking for days and never known it. I will never go back there again.”

That's how JR Kimbler described his ordeal after he and his two children were rescued from Congaree National Park Tuesday.

Kimbler and his children, Dakota, 10, and Jade, 6, were found early Tuesday morning after the three set off for a walk Saturday afternoon.

Kimbler said he realized they were lost Saturday so he sent a text message to his friend.

“As soon as I sent the message, my phone cut off,” Kimbler said.

Kimbler said the three continued to walk in hopes of being found. They rested when they needed to and drank the pond water to stay hydrated.

It was around 4:30 a.m. Tuesday morning when National Park Service Ranger Jared Gurtler was out in the park on foot with just a flashlight. Since he is based at Congaree, he is familiar with all the trails, even at night.

“The best opportunity to hear human voices in the wilderness is at night,” Gurtler said. “At night, no birds are singing and the human voices can be heard at that time.”

When he heard an answering call from the father, Gurtler said it was like a huge burden that was lifted.

Gurtler, a ranger based at Congaree National Park, was one of about 80 search and rescue personnel from 10 local, state and national agencies involved in the search.

Gurtler then radioed back to the make-shift command headquarters near the Congaree parking lot and told them he'd located the missing three.

At that point three South Carolina Department of Natural Resource Game Wardens - JB Smith, Dexter Bassard, and Kevin Roosen - jumped on two Yamaha All Terrain vehicles and made their way to where Gurtler and the missing people were.

Gurtler has radioed his GPS coordinates so the DNR Game Wardens knew where to go.

Gurtler said the family had nothing to eat since they were lost, but did drink water from natural sources to keep hydrated. He gave them the three bottles of water he had with him.

The family was in stable condition, taken by ambulance to local hospital for observation at about 7:45 a.m.

At the hospital, they were being debriefed by a National Park Service Investigative Team to learn more details of their ordeal.

Gurtler said the father told him they started off on the Congaree Boardwalk and went off the trail briefly and then wound up getting lost.

Park Service officials say people who are lost in the wilderness should stay put.

The Park will reopen at 2 p.m. Tuesday afternoon.

Kimbler and his children were located approximately 2 miles from the Harry Hampton Visitors Center in the Congaree National Park.

“This is an example of a success story of how after agencies worked together to find and successfully rescue this family,” said Dana Soehn, National Park Service spokeswoman.

Congaree National Park was closed to the public Monday afternoon as crews continued searching the 27,000-acre woods for a Springdale man and his two children, who apparently set out on a Saturday afternoon walk.

J.R. Kimbler, 43, his son Dakota, 10, and daughter 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.

The search was hampered by water and downed trees over trails, said National Park Service spokeswoman Dana Soehn. “What normally would be a 30-minute hike has turned into a two-hour hike,” she said. “So this is difficult terrain to do a search in.”

Ballard said the three arrived at the park about 4:30 p.m. Saturday, based on the global positioning system in Kimbler’s Checker Yellow cab, which he drove to the park.

The cab remained in the visitor parking lot Monday, one back window down.

Kimbler is a heavy smoker who left his cigarettes and lighter in the car, Ballard said, leading her to believe he didn’t expect to be gone long.

The children were wearing shorts and sandals, their mother said.

Jade has breathing problems, including asthma, she added.

“I’m sure he would try to protect them the best he could,” said Ballard, who lives in Eastover and said she has not left the park since getting the news Saturday night that the three were lost. She was joined by several family members.

At an afternoon news briefing, Soehn said about one-third of the park had been searched using a grid method. Crews were searching on foot, from the air, in boats and on four-wheelers.

Soehn said operations would break at nightfall Monday and resume Tuesday at first light.

Officials decided to close the park to aid in the investigation – to reduce the number of footprints along trails, for one thing, and to reduce the noise level. “When the searchers were yelling, trying to make contact, a lot of the visitors were answering,” Soehn said.

Soehn said the Congaree National Park has been the site of 11 searches so far this year. While some continued after nightfall, there hasn’t been a multi-day search at the park for at least five years.

“Most of our searches, park-service wide, are resolved in a couple of hours,” she said. “People just get turned around.”

Such a large search and rescue operation is typical when children are involved, said Derrec Becker, a spokesman for the S.C. Emergency Management Division. Help came from as far as Summerville in the Lowcountry to Greenville in the Upstate.

Soehn said while the parks service appreciates offers of volunteer help, the search is being conducted by professionals.

North Carolina birders Michele and Marvin Barg said they met 12 to 15 searchers during their 31/2-hour visit Monday, before the park was closed to the public. “A lot of people out there looking,” Michele Barg said.

The tall canopy of pine and hardwood trees obscures the sky at night, making it extremely difficult to see.

Robert McCullough, a spokesman for the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, said the park can be disorienting during daylight, too.

“It’s easy to get turned around and start going the other way if you aren’t familiar with it,” he said.

Adding to the sense of isolation, cellphone service is bad in the swamp.

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