Tammy Ballard walks the trails yelling her kids' names. (Source: Jody Barr)
HOPKINS, SC (WIS) -
Rescue crews have made audio and visual contact with the father and his two children feared lost inside the vast Congaree National Park.
J.R. Kimbler, his 6-year-old daughter, Jade, and 10-year-old son, Dakota, were located just two miles from the Harry Hampton Visitor Center. The group was then taken to a local hospital to receive any necessary medical treatment. According to park officials, they were all in stable condition.
The father and two children were reported missing by the children's mother, Tammy Ballard, Saturday around 10 p.m.
Ballard said she received a text from Kimbler saying the three were lost. The 40-year-old and his children left around 5 p.m. for a short hike that originated from the Harry Hampton Visitor Center, said National Park Spokesperson Dana Soehn.
"It's been a very difficult search," said Soehn. "We're using all available resources."
Crews on foot and in boats have managed to pick through about 9,000 acres of the park. Helicopters and fixed-wing airplanes have flown over the entire park.
Conditions have made the effort difficult. High water, leaves, and large trees knocked down by this winter's ice storm are all hampering the search, said Soehn.
Park officials decided to close the park to aid searchers.
Ballard said Kimbler and children rode to the park in Kimbler's cab. A cell phone is still inside the cab along with his cab logbook. The last ride time, according to the log, was 12:35 p.m. Saturday.
In addition to emergency personnel, Ballard walked the trails herself Monday morning yelling her kids' names.
Crews do not know how the family managed to get off the marked trails.
"The terrain is not very good," said Lt. Brian Corbett with the SC Department of Natural Resources. "There is a lot of water. The trails are covered from the previous ice storm. Makes it very tough. You're not searching roads, you're walking. Pretty much everything has been on foot. We are searching by ATVs now they've actually got a map and they're gridding different areas, they've got different teams of people searching different trails. There's 20,000 plus acres so it takes a lot of people to cover this and that's the reason there are a lot of agencies working to find this father and two kids."
Park officials say getting lost in the vast area isn't necessarily unusual. "We have had folks get lost off trail this year, those are typical short searches, where law enforcement assists in finding someone who is slightly disoriented off of the trail," said Lauren Gurniewicz, public information officer, Congaree National Park.
"You know you have small kids that are adventuresome and they might of saw something," said a family friend at the scene. "You are talking with your kids and the next thing you know you look up and which direction was the direction back."
The Richland County Sheriff's Department, U.S. Park Service Rangers, the Lexington County Fire Service, South Carolina Law Enforcement Division, and the Columbia Fire Department are all assisting the SC Department of Natural Resources.
Authorities are also getting assistance from rangers with the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, whom they say have more experience with a large-scale search like this one.