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The story of how a lone volunteer working on his own found a lost girl in the Florida swamps was so extraordinary, law enforcement officials at first weren’t sure whether they should believe it.
It seemed too good to be true. James King set off at dawn on Tuesday because, he said, that’s what God told him to do. And he went pretty much straight to Nadia Bloom, who had been lost for five days while scores of organized professionals and volunteers systematically scoured the subtropical wilderness for any sign of her.
Even King could understand why people would be skeptical.
“They don’t know who I am: ‘Who’s this guy?’ I wasn’t part of the official search party. I was in by myself. Nadia’s missing for four days,” the 44-year-old hero told TODAY’s Meredith Vieira in New York Wednesday. “They did their job, checked me out. They did a very professional job to make sure things were as they seemed.”
Sunrise searchThe father of five and devout Christian recounted how he found the 11-year-old girl on the morning of her fifth day alone in the wilderness. He had been with a group of volunteer searchers on Monday, and he was planning to go back out on Tuesday. But the volunteers were planning to go out later in the day, and King said he got word from a higher authority to go out at sunrise.
“When the men said, ‘We’ll gather together tomorrow sometime and we’ll come in from the other side,’ I prayed. My wife talked with me that night and reminded me, ‘You know, James, when we lose something, and we pray in the spirit, we always find it,’ ” King told Vieira. “I said, ‘You’re right.’
“So I went back in as soon as the sun came up … I went in and the Lord led me directly to her.”
It took about two hours of hacking his way through dense swamp with a machete to get to Nadia, who has a mild form of autism called Asperger’s syndrome.
“It was very rough. I was prepared. I’ve been in swamps,” said King, who took a GPS device, two cell phones, a Bible, a machete, water, trail mix and a nutrition drink with him. “The Lord told me to follow where the sunrise was, so I went directly east — as much as you can go direct in a swamp.
“I would call, ‘Nadia?!’ and then I’d be praying and talking to the Lord, and the Lord would be directing me. And then one time I said, ‘Nadia?’ and I heard, ‘What?’ ”
‘I’m the girl that got lost’
Nadia was only about 40 yards away, but the vegetation was so dense, King couldn’t see her until he was almost on top of her.
“There she was, sitting on a log, looking up at me expectantly like, ‘OK, you’re finally here,’ ” King said with a smile. He said Nadia said she recognized him from the church she attended with her family.
One of the phones King brought was a BlackBerry equipped with a GPS device. He used that to call in his coordinates to the 911 dispatcher. He used the other phone to call Nadia’s parents.
“I’ve got her. I’ve got Nadia,” King told the operator, whose voice betrayed a note of incredulity. “I’m holding her right now, yeah. She’s OK. She’s got bites all over her. She’s got some scratches. She’s very lucid. She has no major injuries, just exposure. I’m going to give her some liquids. I’ve got some stuff prepared for her.”
King handed the phone to the girl, who told the dispatcher in a matter-of-fact voice, “Hi. This is Nadia. I’m the girl that got lost.”
Bug-bitten but OK
King said the girl was in amazingly good condition after four days without food or clean water.
“She had bug bites from the top of her head to the bottom of her feet, and scratches. None of them were swollen and red as if there was infection. There was no fever. The bottoms of her feet were waterlogged. She didn’t have her shoes anymore. Her demeanor, her attitude was fine,” King reported.
Getting Nadia out of the swamp wasn’t easy. A helicopter was directed to King’s coordinates, but the pilot couldn’t spot him through the dense canopy. Fortunately, King had a roll of toilet paper with him, and he spread paper across some bushes to provide a visual target.
When rescuers finally got to Nadia on the ground, she said two things to them: “Glad you guys found me,” and “Can’t believe you rescued me.”
The fifth-grader, who had last been seen Friday, was taken to a hospital in nearby Longwood, where she was evaluated and treated for dehydration and insect bites, said Winter Springs Police Chief Kevin Brunelle. “If I never believed in miracles, I sure do now,” Brunelle said. A happy ending for a change
Later in the afternoon, the medical director at South Seminole Hospital spoke to reporters. Dr. Rakish Parekh said Nadia was smiling, had some bruises and bites. She was getting intravenous fluids for dehydration. “She is doing remarkably well,” he said. Later, Geo Morales, a spokesman for hospital, said that Nadia’s family requested privacy and said he could not release any information about her, including whether she was still being treated. Brunelle said Tuesday night that he wasn’t sure if Nadia had yet gone home.
“Children can be very resilient,” Brunelle said. “Especially Nadia. She’s a driven young lady, and she surprised a lot of people today.” The discovery was welcome — and rare — in a state that has been plagued with missing children. Her sister has said Nadia may have gone into the dense woods hoping to make a nature video. As they waited for rescuers to arrive, King gave her a nutritional shake, an apple and some water. During the 911 call, King asked Nadia if he could take her photo, “so you can show how God protected you.”
“Sure!” Nadia replied.
“Mr. King is a hero right now,” said Brunelle. “He led us to her.”
Brunelle added that detectives questioned King about the rescue and want to speak with Nadia about how she spent her time while she was missing. Brunelle did say that Nadia told them that she had not talked to anyone since going into the woods on Friday. “Nadia hasn’t indicated to us in any way that Mr. King is involved in anything improper,” the chief said Tuesday evening.
Authorities began searching for her in wooded areas near Lake Jesup, one of the most alligator-filled lakes in central Florida. The fifth-grader was last seen riding her bike and authorities became alarmed when they found it and her helmet in her neighborhood. She did have a backpack with her. It took nearly two hours for rescuers to carry Nadia out of the thick brush and swamp. Shortly after word came that she was alive, her father briefly spoke to the media. “It all came so fast and it just shows the compassion of the human spirit. It should give everybody encouragement,” Jeff Bloom said after rescue crews lifted her into an ambulance. When asked how he felt, Bloom said: “I can’t even describe it. Let’s give the glory to God.”
The Associated Press contributed reporting to this story.