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Five days in the desert

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In this March 17, 2017, aerial photo released by the Arizona Department of Public Safety, Amber Vanhecke vehicle is shown near the Grand Canyon in Arizona wilth HELP spelled out with white rocks on the right, as seen from the agency's helicopter. In this March 17, 2017, aerial photo released by the Arizona Department of Public Safety, Amber Vanhecke vehicle is shown near the Grand Canyon in Arizona wilth HELP spelled out with white rocks on the right, as seen from the agency's helicopter. (Photo courtesy of Arizona Department of Public Safety via AP)

College student rescued after lengthy ordeal

“The reality broke over me. I was free. I was getting out and didn’t have to spend one more night in the desert. I was just crying and my heart lifted,” 24-year old University of North Texas college student Amber Vanhecke told me during an interview about her dramatic rescue from her five hellish days and nights spent stranded in the desert near the Grand Canyon. 

Vanhecke says she left Denton, Texas, for a spring break road trip to the Grand Canyon on March 10. She shared photos of her packed car on Facebook and set her coordinates for Arizona.

The first 48 hours of Vanhecke’s solo adventure went mostly as planned and it wasn’t until she typed “Havasu Falls Trail Head” into Google Maps, which led her to a non-existent road, that her nightmare began. 

At that point, Vanhecke says her car was “70 miles to empty” and according to Google, she would be on this road for 40 miles until meeting the next highway. There, she figured she would gas up and get some food. 35 miles in, Google told her to turn right on what appeared to be a washed-out dirt road.  She panicked as nightfall approached, turned around to find the correct road, and discovered she was nearly out of fuel. “It was zero to empty,” she said. 

The young student says she then called 911 in an attempt to reach someone about her situation. “I was in panic mode and flipping out. The male dispatch said ‘What is the nature of your emergency?’ and all I could manage to say was ‘please help me’ before the call dropped,” she said.

With no GPS or cell signal, she decided to park her vehicle next to the first man-made structure she could find and wait until daylight. She found what appeared to be an old rusted water reservoir and parked her car. 

While alone in the desert, Vanhecke says she frequently saw prairie dogs playing or foraging for food, and she began to think of them as friends. At this point, she figured she had enough water and trail mix to last 5 to 7 days. She passed the time by writing in her journal and reading. 

“I’ve always been a big reader,” she says. “I read about 128 books last year so reading definitely helped me. The stars were so bright and the moon was full or near-full so there was quite a bit of light at night.” 

On occasion, Vanhecke says, she heard what she thought were helicopters but she couldn’t see them. She had to try to send them a message.

“The area that I was in was scattered with large rocks so I spent probably two hours making a sign spelling ‘HELP’ with the rocks,” Vanhecke says. 

“The sign was 25 to 30 feet tall and each letter was 8 to 10 feet wide,” she remembers.

Vanhecke says her exposed skin began to turn red in the desert sun, while her feet became blistered and sore from walking.

On March 16, her fourth day alone in the desert, a truck roared past Vanhecke’s location without seeing her. “That was as soul-crushing as anything could possibly be,” she said.

After erecting a barricade across the road to prevent any other vehicles from passing her by, she began recording video diaries for her family and friends, in the event that she died alone in the desert.

“Whenever something like that happens, there is always survivor guilt and I didn’t want my family and friends to deal with that,” Vanhecke said. “I wanted them to know that it was my own dumb mistakes that got me stuck out there.” 

She says her parents had recently divorced and she filmed a message for each of them.

“I was reassuring my mom that it was OK for her to be happy with someone else. And for my dad that it was OK for him too. I left a message for my friends that I loved them and for my sister, telling her that I loved her. I didn’t manage to get too many words out because I was crying so hard trying to think of meaningful things to say. It was very hard.” 

While trying to sleep in her car in the cold desert night, Vanhecke says she kept hearing the sound of coyotes fighting. Fearful for the safety of her prairie dog friends, Vanhecke says she would turn on her car’s high-beam headlights and honk the horn loudly in an attempt to scare the coyotes away.  

On the fifth day, with her rations now consisting of mostly pumpkin seeds and a small amount of water, Vanhecke says she left the area near her car and walked 11 miles in an attempt to pull in a cell signal. She repeatedly dialed 911 and was overjoyed to finally connect. 

“I told the dispatch woman to please help me – that I had been in the desert for five days. She asked ‘Where are you?’ I said ‘Somewhere between Havasu and the southern rim visitor’s center. She asked if I was in the Grand Canyon and I told her ‘No. I’m in the desert.’”

Vanhecke was on the phone with 911 for 49 seconds before the call dropped again. “I spent the next 15 to 30 minutes in the same spot, walking around and trying to find a signal again,” she said.

Realizing that her car was an easier marker to spot from the air, she began to walk 11 miles back to that spot, near the old water reservoir.

This time, she not only heard the sound of a helicopter, she could see it. “I was very anxious because I wasn’t sure if I was dreaming it but I heard a man’s voice saying ‘Hi. Did you call?’ It was (trooper paramedic on the air-rescue unit) Edgar Bissonette. I was free. There was just sobbing and relief.”  

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