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How 4 children survived 40 days in the Amazon jungle after a plane crash

The world is wondering how the children ages 13, 9 and 4, caring for their baby sibling, conquered terrain so notoriously imposing it strikes fear into the hearts of most adults.
/ Source: NBC News

Lost and by themselves, four children managed to survive 40 days in the wilderness of the Amazon jungle before they were rescued.

The four children — Lesly, 13; Soleiny, 9; Tien Noriel, 4; and Cristin, 1 — were found thin but very much alive Friday after a rescue operation that combed through more than 1,600 miles of dense forest.

Colombian special forces airlifted them to the capital, Bogotá, sparking scenes of jubilation across the country and news headlines around the world.

But the rescue — code-named Operation Hope — poses many questions.

Gen. Pedro Sánchez, who led the search operation, told TODAY Monday that the children’s survival was down to three factors. 

“First of all, the wish to maintain their lives. The second one, they are Indigenous people, so they have immunity to so many hazards inside the jungle,” he said. “And third one, they know the jungle.”

Here’s how four unaccompanied children survived so long in conditions that would be a huge challenge for most adults.

Los cuatro niños fueron descubiertos en la selva de Solano el viernes.
The four children were discovered in the Solano jungle Friday.Oficina de Prensa de las Fuerzas Militares de Colombia vía AP

Surviving the crash

The children were traveling with their mother from the Amazonian village of Araracuara to the town of San José del Guaviare when the single-engine Cessna plane crashed early May 1, nose-diving into dense undergrowth.

Rescuers found the bodies of all three adults on board when the crash site was discovered 16 days later — but not the children.

Instead, rescuers found a baby bottle, an abandoned tiny pair of shoes and some footprints leading away from the wreckage.

The children’s maternal grandfather, Narciso Mucutuy, said in a video the Colombian Defense Ministry released Monday that the oldest sibling, Lesly, pulled the youngest, Cristin, from the wreckage after having spotted her foot.

Manuel Ranoque, the father of the two youngest children, said at a news conference Sunday that Lesly, 13, told him her mother was alive for about four days after the crash and had told the children to leave her and look after themselves.

He added that the children will tell their own story when they are ready.

Colombia Children Found Alive Plane Crash
Manuel Ranoque, father of the four Indigenous children, in Bogota on June 11. Raul Arboleda / AFP - Getty Images

Indigenous knowledge

Rescuers searching the wreckage also found remains of fruit and fariña — a type of cassava flour that is a staple food in the Amazon region — that had been in the plane.

When the fruit and the cassava ran out, the children ate seeds, the family said.

The children are members of the Indigenous Huitoto group, and from a young age they became well-versed in the lore of the forest. Everyone connected with the case agrees: It is ultimately this that saved them.

“Finding enough high-quality food, building shelters and keeping away from harm’s way for 40 days and nights in a remote area of the Colombian Amazon would challenge most adult Westerners ... never mind three children younger than 12 carrying an 11-month-old baby,” said Carlos Peres of the University of East Anglia in England, an expert in Amazonian biodiversity who was raised in the Amazonian city of Belém in Brazil.

“Some 100 years ago, that body of knowledge was very vigorous, but there were no aircraft one could crash in the jungle; 100 years into the future, there may be even more efficient aircraft, but very little of that knowledge will be left,” he said.

Sánchez, who led the search operation, agreed. The children’s background meant they knew “how to survive in the jungle, how to eat, how to drink, stay against the hostile jungle and how to protect from the rain, because 16 hours a day it’s only rain,” he said.

The children had some luck on their side: Fruit was plentiful, an official told reporters, because “the jungle was in harvest.”

How were they found?

A huge rescue operation that gripped the country managed to track down the children, but only after President Gustavo Petro came under fire when he wrongly announced on Twitter last month that they had been found.

The Colombian army and Indigenous trackers — two groups not always on the best terms — crucially agreed to work together.

About 150 soldiers and dogs were flown into the area to team up with dozens of Indigenous volunteers.

“The work between armed forces and Indigenous communities — who obviously know the jungle better than we do — that work was successful,” Petro said Saturday.

Soldiers dropped boxes of food into the jungle from helicopters, hoping 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 loudspeakers that blasted a message recorded by the children’s grandmother telling them to stay in one place.

The children were ultimately discovered about 3 miles from the crash site in a small clearing in Colombia’s Caquetá province, Sánchez said.

Rescuers had come within about 70 to 170 feet of the children on two occasions during the search.

“The minors were already very weak,” Sánchez 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.”

The jungle was so dense that the rescuers’ helicopter had nowhere to land and had to winch the children up by rope, one by one.

A search continues for a missing special forces dog, a Belgian shepherd named Wilson, who found the children but became separated from the main search party. The children’s grandfather said the dog kept the children company and “became their faithful friend” before it disappeared into the forest.

Colombia Children Plane Crash Wilson Dog
Belgian shepherd "Wilson" who took part in the rescue of the four indigenous children.AFP - Getty Images

How are they now?

Considering the children’s ordeal, they are in remarkably good condition.

Astrid Cáceres, the general director of the Colombian Institute of Family Welfare, told reporters: “They speak little and are weak. ... They don’t talk as much as we would like them to. So let’s give them some time.”

The children are still so frail that they cannot eat food and are still just being rehydrated, Defense Minister Iván Velásquez told reporters Saturday. Otherwise “the condition of the children is acceptable,” he said.

They are expected to stay in the hospital for at least two weeks.

Colombia Plane Crash Children Survivors
Members of the Colombian Army checking one of the four Indigenous children on June 9 2023.Colombian Air Force / AFP - Getty Images

Fidencio Valencia, an uncle of one of the children, told Colombian media: “They have been drawing. Sometimes they need to let off steam.”

According to one rescuer, the first words Lesly said after they were found were: “I’m hungry.” One of the boys, local media reported, said: “My mom is dead.”