4 young children rescued from Colombian jungle 40 days after plane crash

Four Indigenous children who survived an Amazon plane crash that killed three adults wandered on their own in the jungle for 40 days before being found alive by Colombian soldiers.

Pilot among 3 adults killed when Cessna 206 aircraft crashed May 1

Soldiers tend to children in a jungle.
Soldiers attend to children who were rescued in the jungles of Caqueta, Colombia, on Friday. (Colombian Military Forces/Reuters)

Four Indigenous children who survived an Amazon plane crash that killed three adults wandered on their own in the jungle for 40 days before being found alive by Colombian soldiers.

The announcement of their rescue on Friday brought a happy ending to a saga that had captivated many Colombians, a watch with highs and lows as searchers frantically combed through the rainforest hunting for the youngsters.

President Gustavo Petro celebrated the news upon returning from Cuba, where he signed a ceasefire with representatives of the National Liberation Army rebel group. He said he hoped to talk with them Saturday, and officials said late Friday that the youngsters were being brought to Bogota to be checked at a hospital.

Damaris Mucutuy, an aunt of the children, told a radio station they "are fine" despite being found with signs of dehydration and insect bites.

Mucutuy, who arrived at the hospital at dawn with other family members, said the children had been offered mental health services. 

An air force video showed a helicopter using lines to pull the youngsters up because it couldn't land in the dense rainforest where they were found. The craft flew off in the fading light. The air force said it was going to San Jose del Guaviare, a small town on the edge of the jungle.

Ages range from teen to baby

No details were released on how the four siblings — aged 13, 9, 4 and about a year — managed to survive on their own for so long, though they belong to an Indigenous group living in the remote region.

Petro called them an "example of survival" and predicted their saga "will remain in history."

The military tweeted pictures showing a group of soldiers and volunteers posing with the children, who were wrapped in thermal blankets. One of the soldiers held a bottle to the smallest child's lips.

Five people in military gear and one in Indigenous clothing stand near a plane.
Military personnel and Indigenous leaders stand under a plane after the arrival of the four Indigenous brothers at the military air base in Bogota on Saturday. (Ivan Valencia/The Associated Press)

The crash happened in the early hours of May 1, when the Cessna single-engine propeller plane with six passengers and a pilot declared an emergency due to an engine failure.

The small aircraft fell off radar a short time later and a frantic search for survivors began. Two weeks after the crash, on May 16, a search team found the plane in a thick patch of the rainforest and recovered the bodies of the three adults on board, but the small children were nowhere to be found.

Sensing that they could be alive, Colombia's army stepped up the hunt and flew 150 soldiers with dogs into the area. Dozens of volunteers from Indigenous tribes also helped search.

Travelling with their mother

During the search, in an area where visibility is greatly limited by mist and thick foliage, soldiers on helicopters dropped boxes of food into the jungle, hoping it would help sustain the children. Planes flying over the jungle fired flares to help search crews on the ground at night, and rescuers used speakers that blasted a message recorded by the siblings' grandmother, telling them to stay in one place.

Rumours also emerged about the children's wheareabouts, and on May 18 the president tweeted the children had been found. He then deleted the message, claiming he had been misinformed by a government agency.

The four children were travelling with their mother from the Amazonian village of Araracuara to San Jose del Guaviare when the plane crashed.

A soldier stands near the wreckage of a plane in a jungle.
A soldier stands next to the wreckage of a plane in the jungle of Caqueta, Colombia, on May 19. (Colombian Military Forces/Reuters)

They are members of the Huitoto people, and officials said the oldest children in the group had some knowledge of how to survive in the rainforest.

On Friday, after confirming the children had been rescued, the president said that for a while, he had believed the children were rescued by one of the nomadic tribes that still roam the remote swath of the jungle where the plane fell and have little contact with authorities.

But Petro added the children were first found by one of the rescue dogs that soldiers took into the jungle.

Five men in military wear stand near a plane.
Military personnel in Bogota unload from a plane one of the brothers Saturday. (The Associated Press)

Officials did not say how far the children were from the crash site when they were found. But the teams had been searching within a 4.5-kilometre radius from the site where the small plane nosedived into the forest floor.

As the search progressed, soldiers found small clues in the jungle that led them to believe the children were still living, including a pair of footprints, a baby bottle, diapers and pieces of fruit that looked like it had been bitten by humans.

"The jungle saved them," Petro said. "They are children of the jungle, and now they are also children of Colombia."