Michael Hitchcock is wise beyond his years or perhaps just plain lucky, authorities said yesterday.
Michael, a 7-year-old Blacksburg, Va., boy, survived freezing temperatures in the mountainous terrain of northern Fauquier County Sunday night by sleeping on a bed of leaves between two logs.
He had disappeared after an afternoon hike with his mother in Sky Meadows State Park, reappearing 20 hours later and 10 miles away walking down the road in a Warren County subdivision, apparently none the worse for his adventure.
Amazing. That was the opinion voiced by many of the 150 searchers who were suffering sore joints and runny noses after scouring the forest through the bitterly cold Appalachian night.
"All I can say is more power to him," said Paul Fries, a fire and rescue volunteer from Marshall who was involved in the night-long search.
"Actually he did the best thing he could have possibly done," said David Vines, a member of the Appalachian Search and Rescue team that led the search.
"Rotting vegetation gives off a small amount of heat created by the bacteria decomposing the material," Vines said. "But more importantly the vegetation acts as insulation."
Dr. George Cohen, a pediatrician at Children's Hospital in Washington, said the decaying leaves and the logs would have acted as a small generator with the boy fueling the warmth with heat from his own body. Furthermore, Cohen said, the logs acted as a brace against the cold.
"There are logical reasons why he could have come out unscathed," Cohen said.
But, said Vines, "It is really amazing that he survived with no frostbite or evidence of exposure. You've got to give the kid credit. This kid must be really smart."
"We ought to recruit him," said Chris Metzler, one of Vines' colleagues.
"I don't know where he learned what he did or if it just seemed like the thing to do," said Metzler, who organized the search. "It was somewhat of a surprise. But a pleasant one."
Fauquier County Sheriff Ashby Olinger said yesterday that he was satisfied with the boy's story.
Early Monday morning, a few hours before the boy was found, Fauquier deputies gave a lie detector test to Michael's mother, Deborah Reyna Hitchcock, and her friend, Robert Tomlin, who had been hiking the 1,100-acre park with Michael when he disappeared about 3 p.m.
Hitchcock and Tomlin had told authorities that the boy had stopped to admire some horses, and they had walked ahead for about a minute before noticing the boy was gone.
The lie detector tests backed up their story, officials said.
"He's very intelligent for his age," said Olinger. "And from what I heard from him, he and his mother did a lot of hiking, so he knew a little about what to do in the woods. He was lucky, and I think the Lord was with him."
Michael's grandfather, Charles Hitchcock, 59, of Fairfax County, noted yesterday that as Thanksgiving nears he has much to be thankful for.
"We're just so grateful he is back with us," he said. "We asked him a lot of questions, but he said he just laid down and went to sleep, and then got up and stayed on a trail until he saw a house. He amazes me every day. His intelligence for a 7-year-old is remarkable and he is always reading."
Hitchcock said that Michael and his daughter often hike and that Deborah, who is working toward a master's degree in botany at Virginia Tech, has always been interested in the outdoors.
Michael appeared calm at a Monday afternoon news conference called after he was discovered. Asked how he felt about his adventure, the smiling youngster said quickly: "I feel a little embarrassed, but not too much."
In response to another question, Michael said: "Well, the first thing I want to do is look at the map" of the park.