Rita Chretien had been in her Chevy Astro van for seven weeks, stuck in a gully on the side of a wilderness road, when Chad Herman, his wife Whitnie and his father-in-law Troy Sill stumbled upon her.
They were on their all-terrain vehicles hunting for elk antlers. As they approached, they did not know what to make of what they saw. The van was deep in a ditch alongside a rocky road on a 5,000-foot mountain in Nevada where you would never expect to see vehicles in winter. Blankets were draped over the windows. Messages were taped to the front windshield including one that simply said "stuck."
They saw someone inside the van. Mr. Sill asked, "Is everything okay?"
Ms. Chretien, dressed in jeans, tennis shoes and a button-down shirt, stood up and slid open the van's back door. She looked exhausted and was crying. "No, no, I am not okay. I need help," she said. She was weak, she could barely stand, but she was coherent.
She asked if they had any food.
They pulled out their rations for the day: jerky, chips and water. Ms. Chretien could not digest the solid food but drank the water.
"I was just shocked," Whitnie Herman said Tuesday, recalling the moment they found Ms. Chretien last Friday. "I don't think any of us grasped it. We were, just like, what do we do now?"
Ms. Chretien told them that her husband, Albert, had gone in search of help after they slid off the road into the gully and she was afraid he was dead. Ms. Chretien said she had been stuck there since March 19.
Mr. Herman was confused. "I actually thought, when she said March 19, my mind jumped to April 19, because I did not even think anyone could live that long," he said in an interview. His wife pointed out that Ms. Chretien had said March, not April.
In an incredible tale of survival that has drawn international attention, Ms. Chretien, 56, had spent 49 days in the wilderness, sustained for six weeks only on water and melted snow.
Inspired by her strength and endurance, rescue teams went out Monday with renewed vigour to search for her husband - on horseback, on foot, by air and with all-terrain vehicles. Some searchers tried to follow the path that Mr. Chretien, 59, may have taken, using a GPS of similar make and model to that which Mr. Chretien used when he left the vehicle.
"We hope we will be able to retrace, with some degree of accuracy, his steps," said Sgt. Kevin McKinney of the Elko County Sheriff's Office. "We hope the same software will provide us with the same information he got on the 22nd when he left the van - what roads it said to use, what pathways."
Mr. Chretien had told his wife he was heading to Mountain City, Nevada, which is about 35 kilometres from where the vehicle was stuck. "We hope you put in Mountain City, and based on same location, it will take you on the same path," Sgt. McKinney said.
The GPS may have been the source of their problem.
Dave Goertzen, a friend of Mr. Chretien's for four decades, said Mr. Chretien bought a GPS - a Magellan - shortly before the couple left Penticton. They discussed the purchase, and Mr. Goertzen warned his friend not to use the device in rural areas, where it couldn't reliably distinguish between well-paved and rougher roads.
"I told him I didn't trust them in the country, but they were great for city," Mr. Goertzen said. "I use GPS, and I don't like them in the country because they tell you the shortest route, but they don't tell you what the roads are like."
Ms. Chretien told her three rescuers that they were trying to take a shortcut, following instructions from their GPS. "She said, we made a couple of bad decisions," Ms. Herman said.
Ms. Chretien also recounted how she had survived since her husband had left. She had some trail mix and candy. She ate a spoonful of food a day for the first week and then ran out. Throughout the following week, she ate melted snow and drank water from a creek. When she became weaker, she drank water running through the gully they were stuck in.
Ms. Chretien told her rescuers that she thought she would not have survived past the weekend if someone had not found her.
Ms. Herman tried to call for help on her cellphone but they could not pick up a signal. Her husband suggested they go to a ranch that was about a hour away. Ms. Chretien was too weak to go with them. They told her they would phone for help from the ranch and return. Ms. Chretien said that would be okay.
A helicopter was sent to bring her to a medical centre in Twin Falls, Idaho. The trio on the ground directed the helicopter. When they returned to Ms. Chretien, she was ready to leave with her purse and luggage.
Before Ms. Chretien left, they all hugged. Ms. Herman recalled what Ms. Chretien said. "The sweet old lady she is, she said, 'Do you have a business card or phone number where I can give you a proper thank-you.' I just told her, 'You don't worry about that. You just take care of yourself.'"
Ms. Herman said she was thankful for the role that she and her family played in helping to save Ms. Chretien's life. "I feel we answered the family's prayers, we answered her prayers. We were in the right place at the right time."
With a report from Anna Mehler Paperny
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