Columbia, SC (WLTX) - The Midlands father who was missing with two of his children in the Congaree National Park for over two days calls the experience the worst of his life.
J.R. Kimbler and his family spoke to reporters at Palmetto Health Children's Hospital Tuesday afternoon, just hours after they were rescued.
"That was a nightmare, just a nightmare," he said. "I hope that never happens to anybody."
Kimbler and his 10-year-old son Dakota and 6-year-old daughter Jade got lost Saturday night, and were discovered around 4:30 a.m. Tuesday by park ranger Jared Gurtler. They were then taken to the hospital for treatment.
Kimbler says the children's mother had dropped off the children earlier in the day to spend the weekend with him, and he decided to take them to the park. He'd been to Sesquicentennial State Park with them weeks earlier, and decided the Congaree would be good to explore.
When he left the visitor's center around 5:30 p.m. and started going around the park, he said the trail wasn't clearly marked at spots. At some point, he walked in a direction that he now realizes he shouldn't have.
"The next thing you know, we were off the trail, once you go a couple of hundred yards, everything starts to really look identical to the stuff you just past," he explained.
As it got dark, he knew they were lost. Around 8:30 p.m., he sent a text message to a friend saying he needed help. But as soon as he sent the text, his phone died.
"I said oh great, that perfect."
Though he was panicked inside, he said he knew he had to be reassuring to his kids.
"I felt like the world's worst father," he said. "I swear I did not mean for any of this to happen, to get off the beaten trail. I was just beating myself up about it, but I knew that I had to be the positive one, because if I became negative I knew they were going to get negative...I knew I wasn't going to let anything happen to my kids."
Raw Video Part I: Family Recounts Time Lost in Park
Raw Video Part 2: Family Recounts Time Lost in Park
At night, he said they would huddle together, pulling their shirts over their knees to protect to against mosquitoes, and tried as best they could to sleep.
"It was so uncomfortable, and laying on cockaburrs and sticks, we were trying to clear off a spot to lay on," he said. "Then you got ants."
During the day, they would walk for 30 minutes, rest, and then start walking again. "I've never done so much walking in my life," he said.
He thought that by following the direction of the sun, they might be able to find their way out. But with the similar, heavily wooded terrain, it was tough to get their bearings.
"I think we ended up in the same place that we started from, it's like we were doing circles," he said.
They had to hurdle trees and deal with swampy areas that made it tough to walk. He would walk in front at all times, taking the brunt of any problems they might find, and says he fell over and over again.
The group had no food or water. To try and stay hydrated, they'd drink the water in ponds and puddles, scraping the dead bugs off so they could consume it. They encountered a wild pig and a wild turkey, and when the turkey left its nest, he thought he might have found a source of food.
"I grabbed one of the eggs and was like 'we could eat these and crack it open and swallow it whole,' but I cracked it open and the bird was too developed. It was gross."
He saw the rescue planes that flew overhead, searching for signs of the trio, but because of how thick the trees were, there was no way he could signal them.
By Monday night, he began to get wonder if they'd ever get out.
Around 4:30 a.m. Tuesday, though, Gurtler yelled out Kembler's name, and for the first time, Gurtler heard one of the people searching for him. He yelled back.
Gurtler told him to stay where he was, but Kembler didn't. "I just started walking toward that voice," he said.
Rescuers sent ATVs to the location, and at 7:45 a.m., the over 60 hour ordeal ended when the group was brought back to the entrance of the park. Kimbler said he was in tears when he saw the rangers and Department of Natural Resources officers.
"I told all those guys on the ATVs that come down there I just want to hug every one of you."
He and his children were deyhydrated, and had bug bites, but otherwise were okay. He's relieved that they got out alive, and says doesn't plan on going near the woods anytime soon.
"I''ll never go back there ever again." he said with a laugh.
Asked where he might take his kids the next time, Kimbler said "a skating rink."