WOLFE COUNTY, Ky. (WKYT) - After searching for roughly 20 hours, rescue crews found two missing cousins alive in the Red River Gorge.
The two boys, Michael Esposito, 5, and Adrian Ross, 7, were found around 1:30 p.m. Friday. Michael, who is from Batavia, Ohio, and Adrian, who is from Bloomington, Indiana, had wandered away from their family at the Koomer Campground around 6 p.m. Thursday while their grandfather was setting up the campsite. The family was gathering at Red River Gorge for a family function.
The forest service team who found the boys say they called out and the boys responded and were even able to tell them the specific spot known as the mountain laurel where they were resting. The first one to reach them says the boys were OK other than being hungry.
Michael's mother said he has camping and experience in the outdoors. She says she remained hopeful, but worry did start to grow as they closed in on 24 hours out alone.
"We were so thrilled," Julia Esposito said. "I prayed all night long and I kept praying find them before the rain comes because I knew they'd be OK last night because it didn't get too cold and they were together."
Michael, who was standing with his mom, said he wasn't scared; it was just an adventure. Michael said he is not even old enough to be in Boy Scouts yet and he somehow found a way to make it through the night out among the woods, and cliffs.
Michael said he slept under a tree and ate sticks.
"I saw the cliff edge," he said.
"Did you stay away from the cliff edge?" his mother asked.
"No, once we were right on it," Michael said.
"I don't want to hear that!" his mother said.
Michael's legs had several visible scrapes, which he said he got from a tree.
John May of Wolfe County Search & Rescue said the kids were found off a trail about 3 to 4 miles from the campsite. May said the boys stayed in the area where they had gotten lost Thursday night, and the dogs led members of the search and rescue team near Silver Mine Arch Trail.
May said the kids were alright. As a precaution, the Wolfe County Ambulance Service evaluated both boys, and then they were returned to their parents. Kentucky State Police initially scheduled a news briefing Friday afternoon, but it was canceled later.
By the time they had found the boys, more than 130 rescuers from multiple agencies -- including KSP, Kentucky Fish and Wildlife, the United States Forestry Division and the Wolfe County Sheriff’s Department -- had been involved with rescue efforts.
They searched by air and on the ground, conducting a grid search of more than 1,000 acres before finding the boys.
A draining search
Kentucky State Police say they were initially contacted by the Wolfe County 911 at 8:41 p.m. Thursday. Multiple search and rescue teams and the KSP Aircraft Section responded to search the area Thursday night.
Crews searched for as long as they could late Thursday and early Friday, stopping briefly only because they could not see.
Search efforts resumed early Friday once they saw a bit of daylight, and it intensified as local and state police were joined by multiple agencies, many of whom made the trek to Wolfe County because they wanted to help.
Earlier Friday, Kentucky State Police Trooper Joe Veeneman said they had been combing a large area, using K-9s on the ground and a helicopter in the air. They had no traces of boys by mid-morning or early afternoon. Concerns grew because the boys were in an area that is very treacherous. The trooper also noted that agencies were trying to cover an enormous amount of ground.
To make matters worse, Veeneman said they were concerned about weather that was moving into the area. Forecasts showed a drop in temperature and rain could make it more difficult for the K-9s to pick up a scent.
Koomer Ridge Campgrounds, which is in the Pine Ridge community in Wolfe County, is a primitive camping area with multiple camping spots.There are more than 60 miles of trails in the Red River Gorge and state police noted there are cliffs in every direction. There were multiple places they could be, he said.
"Obviously, anytime children go missing it is a great concern for us, but you take an area like Red River Gorge and as treacherous as it can be with multiple ledges... we are very concerned," Veeneman said.
It was a physically and emotionally draining rescue for all the crews. At this point, they say it is hard to articulate what it means to find the boys safely.
Garrard County EMS sent a crew to join the search. Eight Lexington firefighters also showed up Friday to help.
Lexington Fire Maj. Chris Ward, who was leading a search crew, said he was just in the Gorge with his own two boys a few weeks ago.
"I think it probably touches everybody," Ward said. "I have two boys at home we were just up here three weeks ago hiking the Gorge with my Boy Scout troop so kinda familiar with the area. I think this touches everybody out here."
The U.S. Forest Service team says they started calling for the boys and got a response. They say the young boys were resting along some rocks and trees in what is called the mountain laurel.
"At that point they knew they were lost they had slept somewhere and laid against a rock and tree," said Kelley Moore of the U.S. Forest Service. "They were a little cold, but they were fine and I was really really happy."
The families say they cannot thank all of the crews for their tireless search efforts.
Michael told reporters he was not ready to go home yet, saying they still had two more days for their trip.
Michael's mother said they planned to stay one more night and then regroup in the morning.