How a miracle unfolded in the Colombian jungle

By Sergio Held in Bogota | China Daily Global | Updated: 2023-06-21 07:34
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Soldiers from the Colombian Air Force tend to one of the four indigenous children who survived the crash of a Cessna U-206G in thick jungle in the Amazon rainforest. [Photo/Agencies]

Children found alive 40 days after deadly plane crash

On June 9, an army commando deployed in the depths of the Colombian jungle uttered the word "milagro" four times over his radio.

Milagro means "miracle" in English. Transmitting the word this number of times signified that four children missing since a plane crashed in the jungle had been found alive after 40 days. News of the discovery made headlines around the world.

"A joy for the whole country! The children lost 40 days ago have been found alive," Colombian President Gustavo Petro tweeted along with a photograph of military personnel and indigenous people providing first aid to the children as they waited to be airlifted out of the jungle in Caqueta province.

The photo confirmed that Lesly Jacobombaire Mucutuy, 13, Soleiny Jacobombaire Mucutuy, 9, Tien Ranoque Mucutuy, 4, and 1-year-old Cristin Ranoque Mucutuy were alive.

Such confirmation was needed, not only for the president but for the entire country, as on May 17, Petro incorrectly tweeted that the children had been found. As news emerged that he had been mistaken, hope for the four faded.

The children were traveling in a single-engine Cessna U-206G bearing the registration HK-2803, along with their mother, an indigenous leader and the pilot. The aircraft, which crashed on May 1, was found two weeks later by a group of highly trained Colombian Army special commandos deployed to the rainforest on May 6 after authorities failed to locate the plane from the air.

Some 33 minutes after the plane took off from La Araracuara airport, a small rural airfield serving the town of Solano, which sits alongside the Caqueta River, former taxi driver turned pilot Hernando Murcia transmitted: "Mayday. Mayday. Mayday. 2803.

"I have the engine at minimum. I'm going to look for a field," Murcia transmitted after the early morning takeoff as he sought an emergency landing spot.

Air traffic control told him he was close to two airfields, but received no response for 15 minutes.

Then, another message was sent: "2803, the engine picked up power again. I am at 120NM (nautical miles) from San Jose, climbing to 8,500 (feet, or 2,590 meters)."

Murcia continued toward his destination, Jorge Enrique Gonzalez Torres airport, which serves San Jose del Guaviare, capital of Guaviare province, on the edge of the Amazon jungle, some 280 kilometers southeast of Bogota, the Colombian capital.

Eleven minutes later, Murcia was heard again over the radio. "Mayday. Mayday. Mayday. 2803.2803. The engine failed me again. I'm going to look for a river. I have a river on the right … 103 miles (165 kilometers) out of San Jose. I'm going to water."

That was the last message received from the pilot before the plane crashed 2.7 km short of the Apaporis River.

Esteban Hernandez, who has flown Cessna and Piper airplanes, which are used widely in Colombia, said: "You must be very careful in a single-engine plane … With any minimal failure, such as engine pressure, or any failure indicated by the instruments, you have to know if you can continue the flight or not."

The terrain in Colombia is not well suited for an emergency landing, and there are not many other options, Hernandez said.

On May 16, authorities found the three adults' bodies in the plane but to their surprise, the children had gone. It was raining heavily, and the searchers had to wait two days for the bodies to be airlifted as they tried to piece together what had happened to the children.

Assuming that they had left the plane by their own means, the authorities believed the children had not been seriously injured, and launched a huge search operation.

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