RED RIVER GORGE — Two boys missing since Thursday night said they weren't terribly concerned about being lost in the Daniel Boone National Forest for about 20 hours before rescuers reached them.
More than 130 firefighters, police officers, U.S. Forest Service workers and others searched potentially treacherous terrain in search of cousins Michael Esposito, 5, of Batavia, Ohio, and Adrian Ross, 7, of Bloomington, Indiana.
After his adventure, Michael said, "We slept under a giant tree." He said his favorite part was sleeping in the woods. He said he ate sticks when he got hungry, and that they tasted pretty good under the circumstances.
A U.S. Forest Service team of four — Kelly Moore, Travis Gibson, Randall Thornton and Ben Limle — found the youngsters, who walked away from their family's campsite in Koomer Ridge campground about 6 p.m. Thursday.
Digital Access For Only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
Moore said he arrived at a fork in a creek and was deciding which way to go when he barely heard the boys yelling.
The team found the children about a half-mile from the campground, but the boys told their rescuers that they had traveled to the other side of a mountain, where they slept against a rock overnight, Moore said. They traveled closer to the campsite Friday.
The boys were hungry and cold, and the rescuers gave them beef jerky, Gatorade and Oreos. They told the four they had heard others calling for them, but those searching didn't hear the boys yell back.
The boys were examined by an ambulance crew, but they were well enough to return with their family to the campground, said Kim Bonaccorso, a spokeswoman for the national forest.
Michael's mother, Julia Esposito, said the cousins said they had fun and weren't scared. The boys have been to Red River Gorge three times and the Koomer campground twice previously.
Julia Esposito wasn't with the campers — a father, an uncle, a grandfather and five cousins — but she drove down after the boys couldn't quickly be found, arriving at about 2 a.m.
"I just had a feeling that God was with them," Esposito said. She said she kept praying that they would be found before it started raining. They were spotted about 30 minutes before the area's first downpour Friday.
The rain would have made the search much more difficult by causing slippery ridges and flooded creeks, deputy chief of Wolfe County Search and Rescue John May said.
"If I had stopped in that same position and it had been raining, I would not have heard them," Moore said.
May said that he has a 6-year-old child, and that three of the four who found the boys have 7-year-old children, so the search was particularly tense.
"My heart sunk," May said. "We normally don't have to search for children this age ... when we heard 5 and 7 years old, obviously a panic button went off."
The two boys vanished Thursday night as Michael's father, Dave Esposito, grandfather David Stricker and uncle David Stricker Jr. set up a campsite. The family was camping for a weekend family reunion. Arrivals were staggered. Next in shortly after the boys disappeared was Adrian's dad, Justin Ross. His mom, Lisa Ross, arrived later.
The sheriff's office and a search-and-rescue team were contacted shortly thereafter, and the first search started about 8 p.m. Thursday.
Those looking for the boys were concerned about the dangerous terrain.
Linda Palacios, an aunt of Adrian, said another cousin told her that the boys had been looking for a secret hiding spot.
"They like to hide; they really like to hide. I wish they didn't so much in strange places," she said.
"The outpouring has just been overwhelming," Palacios said.
Michael wasn't done with the woods or campground Friday. He wanted to stay for the family reunion, although his mom said no decision had been made.