Thanks to scores of volunteers who dropped their weekend plans, a Hotshot crew and a DPS helicopter, a parent’s worst nightmare was turned into a dream come true.
After wandering away from camp and spending a scary few hours alone in the woods, a 4-year-old boy was rescued from the Tonto National Forest Friday afternoon after a helicopter crew spotted the boy beneath a thick canopy of trees.
Rescuers said it was “amazing” that Caleb Sacra was spotted at all given the dense undergrowth.
Bill Pitterle, commander of Tonto Rim Search and Rescue, said if the DPS Ranger Helicopter crew had not spotted Caleb, it would have been a very difficult ground search.
By the time Caleb was spotted, he had been wandering through the woods, near Whispering Pines, off the Control Road, for at least five hours.
Rescuers believe Caleb wandered off sometime between 5 a.m. and 9 a.m. while his father Kenneth Sacra and a friend slept in the bed of a pickup truck.
After being rescued, Caleb repeatedly told his father, “I don’t ever want to go camping again.”
Kenneth told rescuers they had left the Valley Thursday evening for a weekend camping trip on the Mogollon Rim.
Kenneth planned to take Highway 87 to Payson and then drive out to the Whispering Pines area to camp. However, Highway 87 was closed Thursday night due to a wildfire, so the group drove through Camp Verde instead.
“They got in late, around 1 a.m.,” so they decided to sleep in the bed of the pickup, just off the Control Road, Pitterle said.
The last time anyone saw Caleb was around 5 a.m. Kenneth noticed Caleb was missing when he woke at 9 a.m.
Pitterle believes Caleb may have tried to follow his father’s friend, who took a brief hike sometime in the early morning, but got lost instead.
That man said he had not noticed the boy was missing when he took off on his hike or when he returned.
When Kenneth woke and realized Caleb was missing, he and his friend searched the area for several hours. When they could not spot him, they drove to the Whispering Pines Fire Department and asked for help.
The Gila County Sheriff’s Office was called in along with TRSAR volunteers, Forest Service personnel and the Beaver Valley Fire Department.
Rescuers searched the area for any signs of Caleb’s direction from camp. After two hours of tracking, a TRSAR volunteer spotted Caleb’s shoe prints a half-mile south of camp, down a Forest Service road. Knowing the direction of travel, some 30 searchers combed the forest, but were unable to find Caleb.
A DPS helicopter was called in, which searched the area for an hour before spotting Caleb under a tree roughly a mile south of camp.
“He came out from under a tree and they spotted him — it was amazing,” Pitterle said.
“After the subject was located, a (Tonto Forest Service) Hotshot crew was first to reach him. Tonto Rim personnel linked up with the Hotshot crew and transported the boy to his father’s camp,” said Steve Stevens, WPFD chief. “The little boy was in good shape. Tired, thirsty and hungry, but otherwise fine.”