It was dark and rainy, and the three Bluffton kids had been lost for hours.
They’d gone to the woods behind their apartment building to play Tuesday afternoon.
Now, they were scared, wet, and cold and it was getting darker.
But 8-year-old Audrey Velez, the oldest in the group, had an idea.
“I was thinking we should all go under a tree because it was raining,” she said. “Then I thought it would be a good idea to kind of cover ourselves in some leaves and pine straw.”
That quick thinking helped keep Audrey, her 3-year-old brother, Leihum Velez, and 7-year-old friend and neighbor, Taylor Walsh, a little warmer as they waited more than six hours for rescuers to find them.
Lost little explorers
Hours earlier, Danielle Barber — Audrey and Leihum’s mom — stood watching all three kids playing in the street outside their Reserve at Woodbridge apartment building.
“The last time I saw them, they were outside riding bikes,” Barber said Wednesday.
She only looked away for a minute, she said.
When she looked at the street again, the kids were gone.
“As a parent, the worst things go through your mind,” she said. “I walked around and must have done a full sweep of the complex twice. There was no sign of them.”
While a frantic Barber searched the neighborhood, the kids began trudging into the dense forest between the apartment building and the neighborhood about a half-mile away on Knightsbridge Road.
As a parent, the worst things go through your mind.
“At first, we were up at the front of the woods running around,” Taylor said. “And when we were walking, we got turned around. Then, when we were trying to find our way back, we got lost.”
Leihum, the youngest in the expedition party, got scared first.
“He was crying,” Audrey said. “He was scared.”
He wasn’t the only one.
“I was scared, too,” Audrey said, “and I felt sad because we were all alone.”
But she didn’t show it.
The oldest, after all, has a responsibility to act like, well, the oldest.
To keep their spirits up and their minds off their predicament, Audrey told Leihum to pretend they were having an outdoor sleepover party.
The search begins
As late afternoon turned to evening darkness, police were called to help search for the kids.
Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office deputies began knocking on doors and searching apartments.
At about 8 p.m., deputies began searching all cars coming in and out of the apartment complex.
Meanwhile, an alphabet soup of law enforcement agencies — Bluffton Police Department, Bluffton Township Fire District, Chatham County Emergency Management Air Support, SC Department of Natural Resources and the FBI — joined the search.
Dogs and a helicopter were brought in.
The more involvement the better; the more eyes on the ground and in the air the better.
Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office Capt. Bob Bromage
Searchers began focusing on the woods behind the apartment building.
“It’s a pretty big wooded area, and fast timing in deploying as many resources as possible is imperative,” Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Bob Bromage said Wednesday.
“The overwhelming response (from both the public and other agencies) was greatly appreciated,” he said.
“The more involvement the better; the more eyes on the ground and in the air the better.”
Especially with such small targets.
Heading to the woods
As the search dragged on, Barber and her husband Adonis Diaz became more anxious and impatient.
Taylor’s father Robert Walsh was feeling the same way.
“I wanted to go out and look myself, but the police were pretty adamant about no one going out and throwing off the scent for the dogs,” Walsh said.
But despite that advice, Diaz, Barber and her cousin Trey Rice formed a miniature search party of their own.
“We couldn’t just sit here and do nothing,” Barber said.
Diaz said the trio took off “into the woods with a phone and a flashlight and just walked and walked.”
Safe and sound
The three went into the woods about 10 p.m.
“We were yelling their names,” Rice said.
At first, there was no reply.
Finally, though, Diaz heard “a small voice” yell back.
“So we ran toward it,” he said. “I just kept saying, ‘Keep screaming, keep screaming.’ ”
The small voices grew louder and suddenly the kids were in sight.
“My heart dropped,” Barber said. “I was just happy they were OK.”
The group finally made it out of the woods about 11 p.m.
“I was crying, I was so happy,” Taylor’s mother, Tatiana Walsh, said. “I thanked God. We were just praying and praying.”
Other than a good scare and a wicked case of bug bites, the kids were no worse for the wear.
Audrey, though, ever the practical one, emerged from the trees with a lesson learned.
“I don’t think I’ll go out in the woods again,” she said. “At least not (until) I’m older.”