Amanda Eller ventured into a dense forest in Hawaii on May 8, confident her three-mile hike would finish so quickly that her phone and water were unnecessary. She left behind her wallet and her keys, hidden in her car’s tire well for when she returned.
A physical therapist and yoga instructor who lives on Maui, Eller knew the terrain from a previous hike and veered off the trail for a quick rest.
But when she got up to resume, she was turned around, and in a quixotic search for the trail, Eller fractured her leg. She ate insects in the 16 days she was missing in the Makawao Forest Reserve — a disappearance that triggered a massive search drawing hundreds of volunteers, even after authorities scaled back their efforts early on.
Eller was found alive Friday, sunburned and smiling. A helicopter search team contracted by her family spotted her four miles from her car, gaunt after surviving on plants and water, a friend told KITV. She was airlifted to a hospital.
“She figured it out, she was smart, she was strong, she was prepared. We said that in the beginning, and it was absolutely true,” said her father, John Eller, according to KITV.
John Eller said his daughter “took a good fall,” and got lost after looking for a way back, he told reporters outside a hospital in a video posted by Maui 24/7. “They found her in a deep ravine, basically unable to get out, as I understand it,” he said.
“The rescuers had to be airlifted out as well, because it was so tumultuous, he added.
Eller detailed her survival to the New York Times in an interview. She fractured her leg and tore her meniscus on the third day, her friend said, as rescue efforts ramped up in the jungle thick with creeks, ravines and brush. Eller used ferns and leaves for warmth when the temperature plummeted, and one night, slept in a wild boar’s den.
She ate moths and wild strawberry guavas, her mother Julia Eller told Maui News. She could identify those. Other plants were risky and unknown meals. A flood took her shoes, leaving her barefoot and crawling.
“I wanted to give up,” she told the Times. “But the only option I had was life or death.”
A battalion of searchers worked day after day to bring Eller back, rappelling from cliffs and combing streams for signs of life.
Aggressive boars were killed and their intestines inspected for human remains.
Her family offered a $50,000 reward, up from $10,000 in the days after Eller’s disappearance, and hired a helicopter crew to search for her by air.
That effort was Eller’s salvation Friday. Searchers Troy Helmer, Javier Cantellops and Chris Berquist spotted the missing hiker from air, foraging for food.
“It was unbelievable, dude,” Cantellops told CNN. “Seeing her for the first time in a long time was just unbelievable. It was nothing short of elation.”
Her mother, Julia Eller, said her injuries were all treatable, including severe sunburn.
“She lost quite a bit of weight, as you can imagine, being lost for that amount of time,” Eller said, Maui News reported. “But she was able to survive it. She had the right skills and did the right things to buy time so that we had a chance to find her.”
Photos posted to Facebook show her ankles swollen and legs covered in large, blistered wounds.
Maui County Mayor Michael Victorino thanked searchers for their efforts in statement, calling it a “truly a community collaboration.”
Cantellops appeared on cable news and on Facebook to describe the search effort. His photograph with Eller, eyes wide open and lips blistered, triggered waves of relief for volunteer searchers.
“Amanda Eller you are one tough a-- woman!!!” Cantellops wrote on Facebook. “We are all blown away at your barefoot resilience!!!”
Correction: A previous version of this story said Eller was missing for 17 days. She began her hike on May 8 and was missing for 16 days.