Woman lost in Hawaii forest is found alive after 17 days
Feb. 20, 2020
On Friday afternoon, less than an hour after her family announced a $50,000 reward for information, rescuers found Eller with a broken leg, a torn meniscus in her knee, and sunburns and scrapes on her body.
She was malnourished and dirty. But alive.
“I wanted to give up,” Eller, 35, said from her hospital bed late Friday. “But the only option I had was life or death.”
Eller, a physical therapist and yoga instructor, said that she had lost her way in the Makawao Forest Reserve on the northern side of Maui on May 8, when a 3-mile hike turned into a two-week fight for her life.
The reserve is more than 2,000 acres, and is surrounded by thousands more acres of dense forest full of steep ravines, lava rocks, giant ferns and thick vegetation that often must be hacked with machetes.
Eller had intended to go on a short trail walk, one she had done before. She went off the path at one point to rest, and when she resumed hiking, she got turned around.
“I wanted to go back the way I’d come, but my gut was leading me another way — and I have a very strong gut instinct,” she said. “So, I said, my car is this way and I’m just going to keep going until I reach it.”
Eller estimated that she had hiked continuously from 10:30 a.m. until around midnight that first day, looking for her car.
The same determination that led her astray would push her to stay alive. “I heard this voice that said, ‘If you want to live, keep going,’” she said. “And as soon as I would doubt my intuition and try to go another way than where it was telling me, something would stop me, a branch would fall on me, I’d stub my toe, or I’d trip. So I was like, ‘OK, there is only one way to go.’”
Temperatures in the area can dip down to the low 60s, with high humidity, cool mist and frequent rain. Eller was wearing just a thin tank top, a sports bra and capri-length yoga pants. She left her water bottle, cellphone and wallet in her car, leading many to believe that she had been abducted, or worse. But Eller said she had not brought those things because she had planned to be gone only a short time.
On the third day, as police officers and firefighters had begun to search for her, Eller abandoned hopes of finding the trailhead and started looking for water instead.
Things only got worse. She fell 20 feet off a steep cliff, fracturing her leg and tearing the meniscus in her knee, according to her friend Katie York. The next day, she lost her shoes in a flash flood. She moved much more slowly after that.
“The whole time I was going deeper into the jungle, even though I thought I was going back where I came from,” Eller said.
At night Eller covered herself in ferns, leaves and whatever else she could find on the ground. Some nights she slept in the mud. She spent one night in the den of a wild boar. She ate whatever she could salvage, including wild strawberry guavas, plants she could not identify and moths that landed on her body.
“I was getting so skinny that I was really starting to doubt if I could survive,” Eller said. She had begun to crawl instead of walk, and was faced with a steep drop-off ahead that appeared impassable.
Meanwhile, an army of volunteers turned every stone looking for her. They rappelled into ravines, searched caves, free-dove into pools and navigated fast-moving streams looking for Eller. Others killed aggressive wild boars and checked their intestines for human remains. At least one volunteer was attacked by a boar.
On Day 17, Eller was near a stream searching for “some plant to eat for dinner and some place to sleep that wasn’t directly in the mud” when she saw a helicopter. She said she had seen and heard multiple helicopters fly above her during her ordeal, according to her friend York, but none had spotted her. This one did.
“I looked up and they were right on top of me,” she said. “I was like, ‘Oh my God,’ and I just broke down and started bawling.”
Rescue workers had been combing the thickly wooded 1.5-mile radius around Eller’s car. But on a whim, the searchers in the helicopter on Friday decided to go farther, about 7 miles away from the central search area by air — the equivalent of 30 miles walking in such rough conditions, said Javier Canetellops, a search coordinator who was in the helicopter.
“We all did a double-take,” he said, referring to when they saw Eller. “Where we found her is an extremely treacherous area.”
She was airlifted to an airport and taken to a hospital, where she is expected to make a full recovery from what she called a “spiritual journey” to stay alive.
“I am forever indebted and overwhelmed by the amount of people that came out to help me,” Eller said. “It was pretty miraculous.”