LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – An 8-year-old boy was lost for almost three days in a Michigan state park recently, setting off a frantic search that brought back stressful memories for many in Arkansas.
Back in 2001, then 6-year-old Haley Zega all but vanished for three days in the Buffalo National Forrest. For nearly 72 hours an all-hands-on-deck search in the air and on the ground came up empty, day after day.
KARK 4 News caught up with Haley as the anniversary of her disappearance on April 29 approached to head back out with her into the woods and look back to those three days.
Haley was a self-assured 6-year-old on her first hike out with her grandparents in the Buffalo River National Forrest in April 2001. Then she made a wrong turn.
“I had never been out in the woods before,” she recalled. “I did not want to be out in the woods.”
Haley said she made it to the Buffalo River on the first day, the first part of her wild odyssey where everything went right after that wrong turn.
For the next three agonizing days, the media and search teams began combing the area, though nothing was adding up for them.
Little Haley, all alone, was already taking control of her situation.
“I got myself in this situation, I’m going to get myself out of it,” she remembered thinking. “I believed until I made it to the river that I was walking in the right direction.”
A FRIEND COMES ALONG TO HELP FIND THE WAY HOME
A kindergartner alone in the woods would be scared for sure, but Haley believes she was not alone.
“She was with me from the moment I was lost until the moment I was found,” Haley explained. “She was 4 years old, long dark hair she was wearing a sweatshirt had a flashlight.”
Who was this “she” that helped Haley? “She” was Alicia, Haley’s imaginary friend.
“She helped me find the safe path to the river,” Haley said. “We would tell stories, fairy tales, play paddy-cake. Things any child would do with their friend.”
While her companion may have been make-believe, the safe path to the river Haley took was not a figment of anyone’s imagination.
“I managed to find the only way to the river without falling off of a cliff,” she noted.
That potential tragedy was a very real possibility search teams were already acting on, with Haley saying the crews were “searching along the bottom of the bluff line in case I had fallen off.”
Search teams were looking by air, too. Once at the river and in the open, Haley could see helicopters. The long day was over, she thought.
“I started throwing sand in the air from the riverbank, waving arms in the air, shouting… anything to draw attention to myself,” she recalled. “They never saw me, even though they were looking for me.”
DAYTIME ADVENTURE BECOMES NIGHTTIME FEAR
The long day was in fact ending for Haley. Alone in the woods, a longer night was about to begin.
“It was not pleasant to be out there in the daytime, but it was harrowing to be out there at night,“ she said.
For some reason, along with Alicia, Haley swam into the middle of the river and made it onto a rock.
“I got to the rock, climbed up on the rock, as the light was fading,” she remembered. “I was thinking maybe when I wake up it will turn out this was a dream.”
Being on that rock may have saved Haley’s unplanned wilderness trek from ending in a nightmare. Without the protection of the river at night, a child would be easy prey for a mountain lion.
The next morning, the sun came up and nothing had changed for Haley. By that point, hundreds had joined the search for the little girl, or, what they feared may be left of her.
Two mule riders familiar with the area offered to help and had a few suggestions before heading off on their own.
For Haley, Day Two came as more of the same, with Alicia keeping her company.
“Once I made it to the river, I formulated a new plan. My new plan was following the river to a bridge, to a road, to a gas station, call my parents,” she explained. “There was no time to be afraid.”
But being on the move was, in effect, keeping Haley from being found. She was actually moving outside the normal search parameters for a 6-year-old, she later found out, almost making herself a victim of her own determination.
Once again, the comfort of daylight in the woods began to slip away for the 6-year-old.
“I never had a point where I had any kind of a meltdown,” Haley said. “I knew it was not a good situation, I knew it was situation I did not want to be in anymore, but I was determined to get myself out of that situation.”
Even with that determination, the sun was going down and a fear of bad weather had Haley scrambling to find shelter.
“Eventually it stated to get dark again, and for some reason I felt it was going to rain, so this time I found a cave that was close to the river,” she said. “Then I woke up on Day Three, and the plan was still the same. I just kept going.”
BEING PUSHED TO THE BRINK BY EXPOSURE, STRESS
Three days into this accidental expedition, it was a wonder how much longer a child could press on.
Haley had not seen her mom or dad, her grandparents or anyone else for two days. She had not eaten or had anything to drink. Even in her young mind, she admits, she knew she was on the brink.
“I was getting weaker, and I was starting to hallucinate, truly starting to die of exposure,” she grimly remembered.
Exhausted, hungry and thirsty, she kept turning to the one thing that kept her at ease, Alicia, calling her imaginary friend, “a comforting presence the whole time I was out there.“
Even with that comfort, though, Haley just had to stop.
Remember those two mule riders who went out on their own? They became the first two people to finally lay eyes on the missing child.
“William Jeff Villines and Lytle James came out of the woods on their mules and said ‘We are here to rescue you, you’re that little girl everyone is looking for. We’re going to take you back to your parents,’” Haley recalled.
Today, 22 years later, Haley heads out to the woods any chance she gets and often takes friends who haven’t been in order to show off the wonder of being outdoors.
“I find it very meditative to be in the woods,” she explained. “I like to say that, aside from getting eaten by a bear or dying, the worst thing that can happen to you in the woods already happened to me, and I came through it. There’s nothing to be afraid of to me. “
For those two and half days she was missing, though, Haley said she appreciated being everybody’s little girl and the coming together to try and find her, an effort, she said, that should not be lost on anyone.
“I know the world can be a scary place, but I truly believe that if you lead with kindness, if you go in prepared, if you keep your wits, things work out well,” she said. “If you put positive energy in the world, you get it back.”