BY Jeffrey Collins and Meg Kinnard
CONGAREE NATIONAL PARK, S.C. — After spending 60 hours lost with his two children in the vast woods and swamps of the Congaree National Park, drinking foul water and trying unsuccessfully to eat raw turkey eggs, J.R. Kimbler says he knows what not to do next time.
Kimbler, 43, had planned a quick nature hike with his two children during their weekend visit. He took no water or snacks, nor his daughter's asthma medicine or a trail map for his first trip to the woods east of Columbia.
"I feel like the world's worst father. But I guess I did pretty good because I kept everybody alive for three days," Kimbler told reporters just before they were released from the hospital Tuesday.
Kimbler and his kids, 10-year-old Dakota and 6-year-old Jade, were rescued Tuesday morning. Doctors said they were fine except some dehydration, scratches and bug bites.
Kimbler said the signs on the trails confused them Saturday afternoon and they ended up lost among the giant trees, deep in the rough undergrowth and marsh of the 27,000-acre park. The trails were especially tough to follow and the terrain even more rugged after thousands of trees and branches were knocked down during a massive February ice storm.
As the sun set, Kimbler realized they were hopelessly lost and sent a short text message to a friend. Right after he hit send, his cellphone died.
Kimbler is a taxi driver with no Boy Scout or survival training. "Closest I got to that was watching the 'Survivor' series on TV," he said.
So he did what he could. They drank scummy, terrible-tasting water that collected in puddles after picking out the bugs and leaves. They kept walking toward the sun, because Kimbler figured they would run into something or someone. They tried to find food, and Kimbler thought they hit the jackpot after scaring away a wild turkey and finding six or eight eggs. However, that didn't go well.
"I grabbed one of the eggs and said, 'We can eat these — crack them open and swallow them whole!' I cracked it open and the bird was too developed. It was gross," Kimbler said.
Kimbler heard nothing except an occasional helicopter or plane passing overhead Sunday and Monday. By the time the sun set Monday, he began to lose hope.
"I've got to stay strong for them because if I start crying or freaking out, it is going to make it ten times tougher for them" Kimbler said.
As the three huddled together, Kimbler was awakened from an unsound sleep at around 4:30 a.m. Tuesday by Park Ranger Jared Gurtler about two miles from the visitors' center where they had entered the park.
"I was just hollering names," said Gurtler. "They all hollered back."
The ranger tossed them water bottles and told them to stay put.
"I'm not staying here," Kimbler said he answered back. "I'm coming to your voice. I've been stuck here for three days."
More rangers with ATVs were able to reach the family at daybreak and took them back to the visitor's center. Kimbler said he couldn't stop crying.
"I love every one of you," Kimbler said he told the rangers. "I want to hug every one of you right now."
Doctors at Palmetto Richland Hospital had prepared for the worst, as the family arrived in ambulances. But Dr. Derick Wenning said besides some dehydration and dirt, they were in remarkably good shape. Doctors still worry they could have parasites from drinking the dirty water and have warned them of symptoms to watch for.
Doctors released them after six hours observation.
Eighty searchers from nearly a dozen agencies searched for the three. Officials closed the park Monday afternoon, but reopened it Tuesday after the father and children were found.
The children live with their mother, Tammy Ballard, who said she was just happy that everyone is safe.
Kimbler had been out of the children's lives for a few years but recently started weekend visits with them. He tried to do something fun with them on Saturdays, but he said he knows he won't go to Congaree National Park again.
So where will he go instead?
"Skating rink. Somewhere indoors," Kimbler said. "Next time I'm going to Google it first."
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Copyright 2014 The Associated Press