BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — Four Indigenous children survived an Amazon plane crash that killed three adults and then braved the jungle for 40 days before being found alive by Colombian soldiers, bringing a happy ending to a search-and-rescue saga that captivated a nation and forced the usually opposing military and Indigenous people to work together.
Cassava flour and some familiarity with the rainforest's fruits were key to the children's extraordinary survival in an area where snakes, mosquitoes and other animals abound. The members of the Huitoto people, aged 13, 9 and 4 years and 11 months, are expected to remain for a minimum of two weeks at a hospital receiving treatment after their rescue Friday.
Family members, President Gustavo Petro as well as government and military officials met the children Saturday at the hospital in Bogota, the capital. Defense Minister Iván Velásquez told reporters the children were being rehydrated and cannot eat food yet.
“But in general, the condition of the children is acceptable,” Velásquez said. They were travelling with their mother from the Amazonian village of Araracuara to San Jose del Guaviare when the plane crashed in the early hours of May 1.
The Cessna single-engine propeller plane was carrying three adults and the four children when the pilot declared an emergency due to an engine failure. The small aircraft fell off the radar a short time later and a search for survivors began.
“When the plane crashed, they took out (of the wreckage) a fariña, and with that, they survived,” the children’s uncle, Fidencio Valencia told reporters outside the hospital. Fariña is a cassava flour that people eat in the Amazon region.
“After the fariña ran out, they began to eat seeds,” Valencia said.
Timing was in the children's favor. Astrid Cáceres, head of the Colombian Institute of Family Welfare, said the youngsters were also able to eat fruit because “the jungle was in harvest.”
An air force video released Friday showed a helicopter using lines to pull the youngsters up because it couldn’t land in the dense rainforest where they were found. The military on Friday tweeted pictures showing a group of soldiers and volunteers posing with the children, who were wrapped in thermal blankets. One of the soldiers held a bottle to the smallest child’s lips.
Gen. Pedro Sanchez, who was in charge of the rescue efforts, said that the children were found 5 kilometers (3 miles) away from the crash site in a small forest clearing. He said rescue teams had passed within 20 to 50 meters (66 to 164 feet) of where the children were found on a couple of occasions but had missed them.
“The minors were already very weak,” Sanchez said. “And surely their strength was only enough to breathe or reach a small fruit to feed themselves or drink a drop of water in the jungle.”
Petro called the children an “example of survival” and predicted their saga “will remain in history.”
Two weeks after the crash, on May 16, a search team found the plane in a thick patch of the rainforest and recovered the bodies of the three adults on board, but the small children were nowhere to be found.
Sensing that they could be alive, Colombia’s army stepped up the hunt and flew 150 soldiers with dogs into the area, where mist and thick foliage greatly limited visibility. Dozens of volunteers from Indigenous tribes also joined the search.
Soldiers on helicopters dropped boxes of food into the jungle, hoping that it would help sustain the children. Planes flying over the area fired flares to help search crews on the ground at night, and rescuers used speakers that blasted a message recorded by the siblings’ grandmother telling them to stay in one place.
The announcement of their rescue came shortly after President Gustavo Petro signed a cease-fire with representatives of the National Liberation Army rebel group. In line with his government's messaging highlighting his efforts to end internal conflicts, he stressed the joint work of the military and Indigenous communities to find the children.
“The meeting of knowledge: indigenous and military,” he tweeted. "Here is a different path for Colombia: I believe that this is the true path of Peace."
Damaris Mucutuy, an aunt of the children, told a radio station that “the children are fine” despite being dehydrated and with insect bites. She added that the children had been offered mental health services.
Cáceres told reporters officials agreed with the children's relatives to allow for “spiritual work” at the jungle and the hospital “ if there was no immediate emergency action” needed. She said musicians and musical instruments relevant to the children's culture will be allowed in the hospital.
Officials praised the courage of eldest of the children, a girl, who they said had some knowledge of how to survive in the rainforest and led the children through the ordeal.
Before their rescue, rumors swirled about their whereabouts. So much so, that on May 18, Petro tweeted that the children had been found. He then deleted the message, claiming he had been misinformed by a government agency.
The children told officials they spent some time with the dog, but it then went missing. That was a rescue dog that soldiers took into the jungle. The military was still looking for the dog, a Belgian Shepherd named Wilson, as of Saturday.
Petro said that for a while he had believed the children were rescued by one of the nomadic tribes that still roam the remote area where the plane fell and have little contact with authorities.
As the search progressed, soldiers found small clues that led them to believe the children were still alive, including a pair of footprints, a baby bottle, diapers and pieces of fruit that looked like they had been bitten by humans.
“The jungle saved them,” Petro said. “They are children of the jungle, and now they are also children of Colombia.”
Garcia Cano reported from Mexico City.