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4 children are hospitalized after surviving 40 days in the Colombian jungle

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

We're going to talk now about an epic story of survival in Colombia. There, search parties had spent weeks trying to find four Indigenous children, including a baby, who survived a plane crash in the Amazon jungle. Finally, after 40 days, all four were found alive. Reporter John Otis joins us from Bogota via Skype.

Good morning.

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: Good morning.

FADEL: Wow, John, I mean, this is such an incredible story. Forty days, and these children are found alive. How are people reacting to the news that these kids survived?

OTIS: It is just fantastic news. In fact, the Colombian government is calling this a miracle because it really seemed like there was going to be no way these kids were going to make it out of the jungle after being there for so long.

Their single-engine charter plane went down way back on May 1 in a very dense rainforest in southern Colombia. It's an area full of jaguars and poisonous snakes and...

FADEL: Whoa.

OTIS: ...Fast-flowing rivers, as well as guerrilla fighters and the occasional land mine. So there was danger all over the place. In fact, the conditions were so tough that it took search parties two weeks just to find the wreckage of the aircraft. And at the crash site, they found the dead bodies of three adults, including the children's mother.

But her four kids, who are ages 13, 9 and 4, as well as an 11-month-old baby, were missing. So the Colombian army teamed up with local Indigenous groups who know the jungle better than the soldiers, and they began picking up clues. They quickly found footprints and a diaper and then a baby bottle. So they knew the kids were out there someplace.

FADEL: I mean, you're describing poison, jaguars, occasional land mines. How did these children survive?

OTIS: Well, they managed to avoid some of those problems, and the main issue was food. But these are Huitoto Indigenous children who grew up in the jungle. They're accustomed to the rainforest. So at least some of the older kids knew what was edible and what may be poisonous. So they were able to forage for things like passion fruit. They ate seeds and roots, and since it was the rainy season, they were able to find some water. There was also a bit of food in the aircraft wreckage. And finally, army helicopters tossed out food boxes, and some of those found their way into the children's hands.

FADEL: Why did it take so long to find them?

OTIS: Well, the problem is they didn't stay put at the crash site. They may have been spooked from the accident and in a state of shock from finding their deceased mother. They may have wanted to just get away from that tragic...

FADEL: Yeah.

OTIS: ...Place and try to walk out of the jungle on their own. And this made it much harder for the search teams. All along, helicopters were broadcasting messages from the kid's grandmother in the Huitoto language and telling them to stay put and that help was on the way. But the noise of the choppers and the barking of the search dogs actually scared the children, who spent much of their time actually hiding.

And at one point, the Indigenous members of the search party - they became so frustrated that they took ayahuasca, which is a psychedelic brew made from jungle plants, to see if that would provide them with some visions and point them in the right direction.

FADEL: Wow. So how were they finally rescued?

OTIS: The first to find them was a Belgian Shepherd search-and-rescue dog. The human search party finally caught up with the children late Friday afternoon, and here's what that moment sounded like.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Non-English language spoken).

OTIS: So in this video, you can hear the search crew chanting in Huitoto and giving thanks that they have found all four children. The kids were badly dehydrated and malnourished, but they are in stable condition in a hospital here in Bogota, and doctors are expecting them to make a full recovery.

FADEL: Incredible. John, thanks for bringing us this really miraculous story.

OTIS: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.