What Strength Looks Like

Stunning, miraculous – perhaps the only way to describe an extraordinary outcome of a seemingly senseless search for four children, ages 13, 9, 4, and 11 months, whose plane crashed in dense Amazon jungle, and who – with prayers and mental strength – survived 6 weeks, entirely alone.

To put this feat – the tenacity, endurance, and never-say-never persistence of the kids, Colombian Army, and nation – in perspective, one has to understand facts not presented in leading stories.

First, the four children were in a small single-engine Cessna over triple canopy jungle between Araracuara and San Jose del Guaviare, when the engine failed. Typically, having managed the US State Department’s airwing – which flew daily missions over this jungle – that is a death sentence.

A fixed or rotor wing airframe with one engine, trying to find an opening, river, or to autorotate into the canopy, is in deep trouble – there is no safe way down.

Somehow, while the three adults died – including their mother – the four children lived. Photos make clear the plane augured in, nose first, no obvious mitigation by jungle growth, fuselage destroyed.

Having survived, the four stayed with their mother until she died, then began to walk, eating what was left of cassava flour, hunting seeds and fruit, drinking jungle water. Their intuition for wilderness survival may be due, in part, to growing up Huitoto (Witoto) children, tribal, rainforest.

But this hardly explains surviving six weeks in deep jungle. Around them were countless poisons and predators, snakes, frogs, spiders, scorpions, ants, enough deadly flora and fauna to scare any adult.

Snakes include coral and pit vipers, boa constrictors, including the anaconda, not to mention Fer-de-lance, equis, and fanged elapids. Any of these will finish off an adult, let alone a child.

Spiders are worse, black widows, tarantulas, brown recluse, and banana spiders, some size of a large pizza. Colombia’s frogs, colorful and deadly – deadliest in the world – included the yellow-striped, golden, and blue poison dart frogs, Harlequin, Andean, Oophaga, sozens of others.

Beyond ground-crawling dealers of death, consider large predators – able to smell, hunt, surprise, and devour – crocodiles, jaguars, pumas, and jungle bears, or the voracious ant mobs, all deadly.

Or ponder the crippling effects of disease, weakness, paralysis of fear itself, which can create ambivalence, listlessness, hopelessness, and a sense of no way out, no rescue coming, sap the soul.

Yet none of these dangers came to the four children. One has to wonder how, why, and by what divine and human intervention, mental strength, power of their prayers, collective force of love and will, commitment to the possible, they held on. They survived six weeks in this impossible fix.

More will come out, but several things are clear. These kids were on that plane because their parents feared for their lives, likelihood they would be taken by a Marxist terror group, the FARC – known for terror, inhumanity, kidnapping, drug trafficking, and brutality.

They were flying to escape that specific outcome, so knew several things. Life can be dangerous, and you make decisions that affect your destiny. Their parents did that; they did it absent their mother.

They knew their lives mattered, their mother and father loved them and had taken risks for them; the baby was on their mother’s lap when the plane went down. They knew they were expected to value life, including their own, because their parents had modeled that, risked for them, expected things of them.

The oldest – a girl – likely took charge, and like her mother refused to give up, did not look back, did not doubt risk is sometimes required. She faced the task at hand, surviving. Culturally, she took responsibility, assumed the role, and by all accounts, they kept each other alive, slept in trees.

But there is more, and it bears pause. The combination of prayers said by the parents, grandparents, kids, and the entire nation, which knew about the tragedy – the missing children – and did not give up hope, cannot be discounted. The Army search was relentless, and no one gave up.

Nor can one overlook how these kids were raised. They were obviously not told that giving up, being a victim, feeling sorry for yourself, stewing, grieving, blaming, or sitting back and doing nothing were options – even under extreme stress, with injuries, gradually weakening.

What did their parents, life, love of each other teach them that kept them alive? They were equipped with almost nothing, except mental strength, awareness that self-reliance was an imperative, and that responsibility and love of siblings was expected of them, part of them.

They are likely Christian, as 85 percent of their tribe is Christian. One wonders how their depth of hope, persistence, and mental strength was reinforced by what they got taught about addressing adversity, what is needed for to overcome adversity – because they were remarkably poised pursuing the mission.

In the end, this event is worth pause – because these kids and parents offer profound lessons on life, what it takes to survive, dig deep, care and have faith that you matter, and that others believe you matter, and in the end, that you are not alone.  Their story seems far, but miracles never really are.

When life gets you down, when you think the jungle will consume you, odds say you may not make it, stop. Remember these kids. They are the whole point, paragons of faith, fortitude, and never giving up. Hope is found in odd places, but their resolve not only saved them; it taught the world what strength looks like.

Robert Charles is a former Assistant Secretary of State under Colin Powell, former Reagan and Bush 41 White House staffer, attorney, and naval intelligence officer (USNR). He wrote “Narcotics and Terrorism” (2003), “Eagles and Evergreens” (2018), and is National Spokesman for AMAC.

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